Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Kokua: Ultraman Canada

There are three words that are often used in Ultraman: Aloha – love, compassion, peace for many things throughout training and race weekend, Ohana – family, in the extended sense of the term, and Kokua – crew or support along the way. When I was asked to be part of the Kokua I knew the experience of Ultraman Canada would be fun and rewarding and something a little different for me, but I didn’t realize just how fun or how rewarding it would be. The weekend far exceeded my expectations and after every day of competition, I’d be saying or thinking, “this persons is SO nice,” “that swim time was insane,”  “that bike course is beautiful” or “did you hear that this person’s crew helped this athlete?” Whatever it was, I was impressed on a lot of levels – gratitude, strength, rigor, support, determination, and adventure!

Swim start - Skaha Lake. 29 athletes and kayaks
My friend John Bergen asked me to be part of his crew earlier this year. I’ve looked up to John for a long time, but particularly since before Ironman CDA in 2010 when he advised me: “Race smart, listen to your body, manage your nutrition, and mentally prepare to suffer… and I have no doubt we’ll be walking down to stairs together for the swim start in Kona!” The next day I won my age group and qualified for Kona where we were able to race together. John won Ultraman Canada in 2011 and is one of the toughest (and craziest) guys I know.

Over the past year he convinced our other teammate Aaron to sign up for the race, as well as two more PauoleSport guys who had been eyeing Ultraman for some time. Since they were all able to get in, John decided to commit to the race for a second time and pulled together a crew and his training. (Side note: he’s also getting ready for Ironman Louisville, so he decided to “train through” UMC without any taper. Crazy.) John’s sister Kathy, my boyfriend Gerry, and I made up John’s Kokua. Sydnie was up there crewing for our friend Aaron Postema, as was his wife (Ann), his sister-in-law (Ava), and his sister’s boyfriend (Brian). It was also really fun to have two other PauoleSport athletes, Greg Pelton and Brian Dillon there with us. The one downside of crewing is that you’re required to be at the athlete meetings on Thursday and Friday. Penticton and the Okanagan Valley is beautiful, so it’s fun to be up there, it would just be more fun to be up there on a bike! Friday afternoon there was one final meeting at the lake to assign kayaks. Sydnie, Aaron, Gerry and I were able to go for a swim and then it was an early dinner for our athletes before lights out for the night.

Part of the Day 2 bike course - I was able to get in a bike ride after the athletes were in on Day 1. Penticton and the Okanagan Valley is a great place to visit and workout.
For write ups on the days’ events and times, check out articles from Lava and slowtwitch here and here.
Saturday morning we gathered at Skaha Lake to send off the athletes and paddlers. Gerry was the paddler in our crew and kayaked next to John while he swam 10k. The lake conditions were perfect, but 10 kilometers is a freaking long way. After the start line ceremony and Canadian national anthem, Kathy, Sydnie, Ava, Ann, and I went to Starbucks. :) A couple hours later John got out of the water in 3rd place and with a quick transition was out on the run. As part of his crew, we set up his transition, helped him out of the water, and headed out on the road to get him iced sports drinks and water. The bike course on day one covers the majority of the old Ironman Canada course (new Challenge Penticton). It’s 90 miles and gorgeous and hilly. John rode well, but was not as strong as he wanted. He finished in a disappointing 5th place after day 1 and quickly realized how tough the competition was this year.

From Left: PauoleSport athletes, John getting ready to swim, Gerry getting ready to paddle
From Left: Craig Percival with the new swim course record (2:24:48), Dave Matheson, the eventual winner, exiting the water
10k swimming requires a little TLC getting out of the water

Sunday was the BIG bike day – 171.4 miles. Conditions, again, were perfect and the competition was tight. John was in the top group of guys who basically rode together (with enough space to not draft) through the first 120 miles. Even through the section referred to as “the wall” the top 5 riders were all pretty tight, which made it really exciting over 171.4 miles. As crew we hustled to have everything prepared and ready for our athlete and were able to see him every 5-10 miles. The scenery was amazing and part of me wanted to be out there riding too.

Bike course: Okanagan countryside on the bike course, Greg Pelton and Brian Dillon ride by on day 1, Gerry with a water stop on day 2
Day 3 is a 52.4 mile run over hilly back mountain roads. If you have to do a double marathon, it actually seemed like a pretty cool place to do it. It’s also the most exciting day for the crew, because you get to get on the road and run with the athletes as pacers. For the first marathon, John was able to run with one of the other athletes and only needed our help with getting proper fluids and nutrition. By mile 26, I jumped in and ran about 7 miles with him. Then Gerry jumped in and ran with John and then Kathy jumped in and ran with her brother. His pace slowed and as the miles wore on, he definitely needed more coaxing. But the wheels were certainly not coming off and we knew he was in a good position. There were a couple times we drove back to do time checks for him on some of the other competitors. With 8 miles to go, I jumped back in and ended up running him to the finish line. It was definitely a different spot to be in, as I encouraged my so called “Ironman big brother” to “just run 8:30 miles down this hill” and “keep moving forward when we give you water.” I just wanted to make sure he ran a race he could be proud of, and I’m sure he was. For the record, the downhill in the last few miles looked absolutely brutal on the athletes’ shredded legs. After 7 hours and 34 minutes of running and 3 full days of racing, John and his Kokua ran through the finish arch and he was done.

John and crew, run start, run course
And done! Notice my stumpy legs and
Gerry's shoes standing by.
Photo cred: Rick Kent (the Master)
After crossing the line it was a waiting game to see where the guys who had been in ahead of him after the first two days would finish the run. John’s 3rd place run finish time was good enough to move him from 4th place after day 2 to 2nd place after the run. He was about 12 minutes ahead of the 3rd and 4th place finishers who were separated by only 6 seconds! All of the athletes were true competitors and all-around upstanding people, great ambassadors for triathlon and an honor to support during the event. Aaron, Greg, Brian and their crews also finished all three days with lots of fun stories and memories from the weekend.

From left: Team Pelton at the finish, announcer Steve King, RD's Steve Brown and Jane Backus (photo cred: Rick Kent),
Women's champ (notice the Canadian beer in hand at Medical)
The actual race course is not supported, which is part of the reason athletes are required to bring a crew, but the race organizers have ice baths, massage therapists, a world-class announcer, food, music, and a beer garden at the finish line. Gerry and I were talking to race director, Steve Brown, as he was telling us about how he got into Ultraman. He said he liked the Ironman events, but when he saw Ultraman, he fell in love. It reminded him of what Ironman used to be like in the old days with the smaller venues (UMC caps it at 30 athletes to keep it small) and crazy adventure. I don’t know if I’ll be signing up for Ultraman anytime soon, but maybe someday. It definitely looks like a grueling race, but it’s so supported and intimate, that it makes it feel truly special. The slogan on the Ultraman Canada site reads: “We meet as strangers, we compete as friends, we part as family.” As part of the 2013 Kokua, it was definitely my experience.


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