Ever since I first read about an Ironman, completing a triathlon has been on my bucket list. As a natural swimmer, leisurely biker and a marathon runner, the idea of combining all three seemed like great fun! While I wasn’t crazy enough to jump right into a full Ironman, I did register for half Ironman distance race with only 6 weeks to fully train. Which brings me to this race report for my first triathlon: the 2018 REV3 Niagara Falls Barrelman. This blog is a doozy but I read a lot of race reports in preparation and found them incredibly helpful. If you’re about to take on your first triathlon I hope you will find this useful as well. I highly recommend this race for a 70.3 newbie!
Before I knew it, race weekend was here. I felt as ready as I would ever be. Even though I had crammed in my training, I felt as though I had been training for ages. The weeks before race day I had felt an anxious knot in the pit of my stomach but the more I read and the more I trained, the more confident I felt. Now when I watched the promo video for Barrelman, I felt excited. I will swim, I will bike and I will run my heart out!
Saturday morning I triple checked all my bags, in case a supernatural phenomenon occurred while I had slept causing my gear to disappear from my bag. We packed up my bike “DO NOT FORGET THE BIKE” and drove out to Welland, near Niagara Falls. The atmosphere at the race expo was pretty relaxed and it was easy to find parking and pick up my race kit. A handful of vendors were set up outside and I sampled the F2C electrolyte drink and Endurance Tap maple syrup gels that were going to be offered along the course. I dropped off my bike in T1 and checked out the transition area. I went over my route from the canal to my bike and was happy with my spot which was easy to find, and right along the gate. I would even be able to see my boyfriend during transition. A wave of relief passed over me as I began to feel more comfortable in my surroundings.
We sat in the first athletic briefing and it was informative and full of positivity. “We want to make sure everyone will finish so there will be no cut off time for the bike” the race director John Salt stated. You could feel the sense of community in the air. The race was a competition no doubt but even a newbie like me felt welcome. The one thing that everyone was really concerned about though was the heat. The briefing took 40 minutes and we were roasting in the sun, it felt like the middle of summer! We were reassured that extra ice and water had been ordered for the run course.
After the briefing, I wandered down to the canal and slithered into my wetsuit – now I was really starting to sweat! I did my practice swim in the canal and the temperature was heavenly. Cool enough to beat the heat but I didn’t overheat in my suit. I heard many people say that they were opting to not wear their wetsuit, but I was excited to wear mine and the suit also helped my speed quite a lot. I loved swimming in the canal, the water was calm and it was easy to spot the buoys that I would be sighting. I didn’t swim for too long however, as I wanted to make sure we had enough time to scout the bike and run courses.
I gave my tires one last pump, said goodbye to my bike and we headed out for a stunning drive around Niagara. We drove the whole bike course which was now down to 86 kilometres due to construction. The roads were nice and flat and I was grateful for all the pretty scenery to admire on my long ride. The run course was a bit trickier to navigate through the crowds and traffic on Clifton Hill and we were unable to check out a few kilometres that were hidden away in a park. I kept reading about how deceptively hilly the run was but I had examined the elevation. Compared to other marathons I had done run this race didn’t seem any steeper. The route looked fun with a lot of variety. At the 10km mark you loop back to the start and do the whole route again, but I actually didn’t mind because breaking the run up made it feel shorter.
My boyfriend and I scouted the post race area and pick out a back up meeting spot. Then we headed back to Welland for an early dinner. I had made a reservation at Don Marco’s in Welland, a cozy, comforting Italian restaurant. A delicious way to carb load before a long race! I stuck to my pre-race rule of no alcohol, and had made sure that I drank lots of water and Gatorade throughout the day. Time was ticking by and I wanted to make sure I got to bed early so we paid our bill and checked into an Air BnB that I had booked, conveniently a 5 minute drive from the race starting point.
I placed all the mandatory stickers on my gear and bags and sorted everything out before heading to bed. This is a point to point race so there are three bags that you need to prepare: your black wetsuit bag, your red bike to run bag and your clear post race bag. Everything that you will need before your race and everything that you will not be bringing on your bike will go in your black wetsuit bag. Here is my final packing list for the whole weekend:
-swimsuit & cap for warm up swim
-Lamond road bike with clipless pedals ($50 from MEC), cadence sensor ($50 from MEC) aerobars, 2 x waterbottle cages on the frame and portable bike pump
The morning of:
-Sugoi trisuit purchased from Enduro Sport – $119 (on sale)
-Moving Comfort sports bra purchased from Enduro Sport – $30 (on sale). The best sports bra I’ve ever owned!
-Garmin Vivoactive sports watch – $200 from Amazon
-yoga mat, stretch bands
-a light jacket
-race number tattoo, race bracelet & tracker
-Gluten free english muffin with peanut butter
-Naked Protein powder, a banana, almond milk and my Magic Bullet to make a smoothie
Black Wetsuit Bag:
-Gatorade and a Honey Stinger gel for pre-swim nutrition
-wetsuit – rented from Enduro Sports in Toronto (4 days @ $50)
-my pink swim cap indicating my swim wave
-tinted goggles – purchased on Amazon
-back up goggles
-dry wick towel
-old towel for transition area
-bike helmet – nothing fancy – from MEC
-Pearl Uzumi spd bike shoes – $100 from MEC (on sale)
-Sugoi bike gloves – $30 from Sweet Pete’s (on sale)
-my trusty compression socks – purchased about 5 years ago for $100 at a race expo
-waterproof sunscreen, face sunblock stick, kleenex
-shitty old sunglasses
-race belt with BIB, salt tabs, kleenex, Blisteraid, hand wipes, lip balm
-two frozen Gatorade bottles – one filled with water, one with coconut water
-3 packs of Cliff Bar gummies, 2 with caffeine
-scotch tape to tape my gummies to my bike frame
-1 Cliff Bar broken up into pieces in a ziplock bag
-in my small bike bag under my seat packed: a glueless patch, spare tube, 3 x tire levers, torque multitool and Monkey Grease wipes
-I will be placing my face sunblock stick and Body glide in the side pockets of my trisuit
Red bike to run bag:
-my trusty Nike Pegasus running shoes
-small coconut water and Honey Stinger Waffle for a quick snack
-gels for my race belt
-IT running bands
-dry wick hat
Post Race Bag:
-loose track pants
My swim wave was at 9:03AM. I woke up at 6:30AM, made my protein shake, forced down an English muffin with peanut butter and drank some coconut water along with my ginger tea. I did a few warm up yoga stretches, and lined the back of my neck, armpit line and inner thighs with Body Glide before pulling on my trisuit. My boyfriend helped stick on my race tattoos and taped my shoulder, and I was ready to go by 7:20AM.
I was in T1 by 7:30AM and took my time setting up my area. I hung my helmet on my handle bars where I placed my sunglasses and bike gloves, and laid everything else out below on an old towel. I had everything set up by 8AM. I dropped off my bike-to-run and post race bags, drank some more Gatorade and headed to the bathroom line for my last break. At 8:30AM I ate a gel and pulled on my wetsuit. I was in the water for my practice swim by 8:40AM and before I knew it – 9:00AM was here. All the weeks of training, stress, worry, happiness, highs and lows came down to this one moment.
My biggest concern about the swim, like most triathletes, is the start. I had read terrible stories about chaotic starts where people swam over you, and your goggles were smacked off by other swimmer’s out of control elbow. As I bobbed around with the other pink caps, I tried to position myself near the edge of the pack but we seemed to be well spaced out. Everyone, including, surprisingly myself, seemed very calm. The whistle rang through the air at 9:03AM and we were off!
I found my groove, breathing every three strokes and sighting every 9 strokes. I was so relieved that the start went OK that I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. I can’t quite explain what came over me, but about 5 minutes into the swim, I suddenly felt very crowded. There was someone swimming very close to my right and my left side and there were feet bubbling in front of me. While I had done a practice swim with the local triathlon club the group was only about 15 people so it was a pretty different feeling versus swimming with hundreds of swimmers. A wave of anxiety swept over me and the neckline on my wetsuit suddenly felt very tight. I was surprised by this feeling, I had never panicked in water before. This was supposed to happen, swimming is my favourite sport! But the thought of going on for another 40 minutes seemed overwhelming. The feeling was awful.
I had two choices, either bail or stick it out. So I kept going, one stroke after the next. I calmed myself down, focused on my breathing and started to get used to moving among the other swimmers. When anyone started to get too close I either slowed down or sped up until I found my space again. After a few minutes the anxiety passed, and I felt great! Sighting was a bit harder than I had anticipated but because the course was straight it wasn’t that necessary. As I passed the halfway point I even saw the yellow buoy string under water and followed it all the way back, I was flying!
I finished the swim in 42 minute (estimated time 50 minutes). Once I got over my spout of anxiety I really enjoyed the swim. I felt strong and had a great rhythm going. I was puzzled by what happened in the first five minutes but can only attribute it to inexperience in an open water race. Regardless, on to the bike!
Posed for my boyfriend as I ran to the canal exit.
I had practiced transitioning at home many times, and estimated about 3-4 minutes. Not even close! I spent nearly 10 minutes in transition. While I did take a moment to give my boyfriend a quick kiss, the bigger issues was that I tried to dry myself off a bit so that I could apply sunscreen, but between my wet skin and sweating I kept dripping sunscreen everywhere so had to dry off and apply a few times. Note for next time: get better waterproof sunscreen! Other than that everything went smoothly according to plan. I gulped down some more Gatorade, and peed on my old towel as I put on my compression socks and shoes. I clipped on my race belt with my bib, slipped on my sunglasses, gloves and helmet and was ready to go. But 10 minutes though! Ugh. Now I understand why the pros just slip on their helmet and run away with their shoes strapped to their bike. Don’t get too comfortable!
As you can see from this photo, I LOVED the bike course! This was my face the whole time! Flat, fast and so scenic, the time flew by! I was diligent with my nutritional, as this was the time to stock up hydration and energy. I munched down all the pieces of my Cliff bar in the first half hour and then ate a few gels every half hour after that. In between I took sips of my coconut water, then my water, making sure to pick up the opposite at each hydration station.
This was my first time in a bike race so I had to keep remembering to say “on your left” and gaging when to pass the biker in front of me. I was surprised by the number of cyclists who weren’t saying on your left though, I thought that was kind of dangerous and a little egotistical. However for the most part I was passed by really lovely fellow triathletes. I forgot I was wearing my bib so was a bit startled the first time someone called out my name in encouragement. “Thanks, you too” I called back and chuckled to myself as they were clearly doing just fine. I even received a compliment on my fun polka dotted trisuit! I would actually keep passing the same woman a few times on the race, and called out a friendly “hello ____” each time. Love it!
The heat wasn’t too bad by this point, as the flat course was kind on the legs and allowed me to reach speeds up to 45 km/hour at one point on a downhill! I pretty much stayed around the 30km/hour mark though and aimed to be between 70/80 RPMS. Biking along the open country roads was much more fun than city biking, where I had to stop every few minutes for a light, pedestrian, child or dog. I loved every minutes of it! A couple of times on the course my stomach felt a little grumbly, but I just attributed the issue to heat or perhaps the electrolyte drink that was provided. Time flew by and before I knew it was racing through the last kilometre. I felt full of energy, like I could bike forever, and flew passed a few people near the end. I completed the bike in 2 hours and 55 minutes, way better than I ever imagined having roughly estimated 3.5 hours. Awesome!
My bike to run transition took just as long as my swim to bike unfortunately. The first issue was because I had to wear my run belt with my bib on the bike, I didn’t want to bike with all my gels so had to add them in my belt during transition. My hands were all sweaty and I struggled to get the darn things in. I’m not sure what I would do differently here, I guess wear the gels on the bike? Even if they were on a separate belt I would still have to swap my bib over. I gulped down some coconut water and loved my yummy Honey Stinger Cinnamon Wafer – a nice change from all the chews!
On my way out of transition I took my first bathroom break of the day, and ran into my second issue. My stomach was NOT happy with me and I couldn’t figure out why. I had done everything exactly the same as during training, with the exception of the F2C endurance drink on the course, but I had drunk only a small amount, and couldn’t imagine that was the source of the problem. To make matters worse, I had to take off my belt and prevent the tops of the gels from touching anything in the port-a-potty (ew), and it was so hot and sweaty that the toilet paper stuck to everything. I tried to slide some more Body Glide on my calves and sanitize my hands the best I could but I had to get going. Another 10 minutes down the tube.
I was so happy to see my boyfriend as I exited the transition area! My best friend was coming to cheer me on as well and I asked my boyfriend where she was. “She’s at the casino” he called. “Casino??!!” I yelled back, as for some reason I appeared confused by this response.
Once I started running I felt pretty good! My legs weren’t tired at all and despite the heat, there was some shade along the course. I soon fell into my usual marathon routine of consuming a gel every thirty minutes and rotating between water and the electrolyte drink at each hydration station. The run through the park was nice and cool and a pleasant break from the city streets. I headed up through Clifton Hill, weaved my way through the tourists and ran down the path in front of the casino. I was so happy to see my best friend and her daughter! I gave her a big sweaty hug and high fived her daughter, who ran alongside me for a few paces. Even though you may only see a familiar face briefly on a race, that little boost of love and familiarity gives you a huge swell of energy.
I was feeling pretty good as I completed the first loop and ran past the finish line. A woman spectator made me smile when she called out “there goes my polka dotted trisuit!”, haha! I loved how my fun trisuit was getting lots of attention!
Just after the 10KM mark something REALLY bad start to happen in the bowels below. I had felt a little something at the 8KM but felt I could live with it and ran past the port-a-potty. As I ran through the park I noticed a real washroom on the other side of the route. I decided that I might as well be comfortable for the rest of the run, and would stop in on the way back out of the park. Big mistake. I was about 30 seconds away from the washroom when all of a sudden, an explosion erupted in my trisuit. I cannot explain it any other way, but I’m certain that the runner behind me must have heard the blast that came out of my butt. I apologize for going into detail, but there is no other way to describe the situation. Thankfully, the bottom of my suit is black, and tight, so I was able to make it to the bathroom without further embarrassment. I wasted about 5 minutes cleaning up the mess, feeling thankful that at least I was in a real facility.
The remaining 7 kilometres were the most uncomfortable 7 kilometres I have ever run. My stomach felt off so I stuck to water and cut back on my gels. I felt so hot, sweating more than I ever have in my life, having never run more than a 5 kilometres in +30C conditions. Worst of all, my wet trisuit chafed like crazy. I have never experienced chafing and WOW, is it ever unpleasant. I tried to use some Body Glide in the washroom, but everything was so wet that it didn’t have any effect. The last few hydration stations were out of ice, but I was such a mess by this point I didn’t care anymore.
19 kilometres, 20 kilometres, and finally, my favourite part of any marathon, the last kilometre. Even though I was uncomfortable I tried to enjoy this last part of the triathlon. I thought about how lucky I was to be physically able to take part in a race like this. How lucky I was to have two legs, two feet, a working heart, strong muscles and bones. No matter what happens to me in my life, I will always have this moment.
What a wonderful feeling it was to see that big, white finish line. I knew what to expect because I had passed the finish line on the loop, so as soon as I turned into the park, I gave it my all. I never realized how intensely demented my face looks in these last seconds of the race. As you can see from the photo above, I am in beast mode! My feet pounded the pavement, my arms swung back and forth rapidly like Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix, and my breathing sounded like a raging bull. I charged through the finish line and threw my hands up in the air. Barrelman. Done.
This triathlon was one of the most accomplishing goals I have completed in my life. For me, in comparison a marathon is physically harder, but competing in a triathlon was mentally more challenging. The stakes felt higher for a triathlon, and even though I felt physically ready, there were so many other factors and possibility for error. I was more nervous before a triathlon than I had ever been for a marathon.
I finished the run in 2 hours and 20 minutes, my exact estimated time. I completed the Half Ironman distance REV3 Niagara Falls Barrelman in 6 hours and 20minutes finishing 479/863 overall and 149/323 in my age group. While I was incredibly happy with my time, I couldn’t help but think to myself – if only I hadn’t wasted so much time in transition, and then in the bathroom on the run, I could have shaved off another 15 minutes! So it begins…
As I thought about the race on the way home, I couldn’t explain the stomach problems that had occurred, I had never experienced anything like this on a marathon before. I called my friend who had been coaching me and gave her my race report. She said that it could have been anything from the water in the canal, to the electrolyte drink, but more likely the intense heat or simply the fact that your body is taking on three different activities! I was very grateful that this was the only problem I had encountered, and would take bathroom runs over an injury any day.
All of a sudden it hit me. Could it have possibly been the coconut water? I had trained with it, but now that I think back I remembered having similar stomach problems whenever I drank it, but had attributed it to other factors. After a quick Google search I learned that while coconut water is very hydrating it’s also high in potassium, and reacts like a laxative if you’re sensitive to potassium. Being one of these people (which is why I only have a banana in the morning, never during a race, to get my system going), I should NEVER use coconut water as source of hydration for endurance sports. I was appalled at myself, how had I not realized this earlier? I had drank SO much coconut water today! Then I laughed, I mean what can you do? Live and learn. Plus it does make a pretty funny story!
The second best feeling after crossing that finish line was standing underneath this wonderful, Splash Pad. I could have stood there for hours, relishing the cold water as it rinsed off all my salt, sweat and tears and cooled off my poor chafed bum. I couldn’t have asked for a better race for my first triathlon. The course was straightforward and scenic, and even though the weather was hot, sun is better than rain! The event was very well organized and I was impressed with how the race director John Salt seemed to really care about the athletes and providing the best race possible.
The one thing I really took away from triathlons is how much I loved the community. Everyone was really nice, helpful and encouraging to other triathletes, and I raced with athletes of all different ages, genders and levels. I also felt so inspired by the athletes who raced with disabilities. There was a blind triathlete, and another who was racing with their dad who had MS. I’m so amazed with what we can accomplish with our bodies. With that in mind and a half Ironman under my belt…there is faint whisper in the back of mind chanting I-ron-man, I-ron-man…