Made of iron 

A dozen Whistler locals are taking part in next weekend’s Ironman Canada

You’ve probably seen them swimming around Lost Lake in their wetsuits, riding road bikes up and down the Sea to Sky corridor, running on the Valley Trail.

This year a total of 11 Whistler athletes will be taking part in the annual Ironman Canada competition in Penticton on Aug. 24, competing for personal bests, spots in the world championships, and the fun of it.

Six of the competitors are from three married couples, two competitors are over the age of 60, and the majority of them have competed in more than one Ironman.

The Ironman race starts off with a 3.86 km swim, followed by a 180.2 km bike ride. The last stage is a full marathon of 42.2 km. Although it is one of the most challenging races, the Ironman Canada event routinely attracts more than 2,000 racers from around the world. Not only is it considered to be a good race with excellent volunteer support and beautiful views, it is also a qualifier for the Ironman World Championships held every fall in Kona, Hawaii.

The list of Whistler athletes includes John and Grace Blok, Murray Coates, Ian Goard, Daniel Havens, David and Brandi Higgins, Paul Nicholas, Mae Palm, and Christine and Paul Suter.

Although they all have different reasons for competing in Ironman, and different goals for when they get there, they have one thing in common – training. Although it can take anywhere from eight hours to 14 hours from start to finish, it takes a year of intense training, up to 20 hours a week, to do an Ironman.

Brandi and David Higgins

The husband and wife team of Brandi and David Higgins are taking part in their first Ironman this year. Their goal, says David, is just to finish – "We’d be killed trying to do anything else."

Both are swimmers, and have one marathon, one half-Ironman, and several spring triathlons under their belts. As masters swim coaches, they worked out in the pool with locals who were in training for all kinds of triathlons, including the Ironman, and decided it was something they had to do.

Since then they have put in between 10 and 20 hours a week of cross-training – running, cycling and swimming – to get ready for Aug. 24.

David’s goal is to finish between 11 and 12 hours.

He is enjoying the training, and is amazed that he can go out for a 120 km bike ride or a two and a half hour run and still feel strong.

"Of course putting it together is going to be the challenge," he said.

Higgins says the support from the community and other Ironman competitors has been amazing, with groups of eight or nine people swimming across Alta Lake, going for road rides, and running on the Valley Trail. When you don’t feel like training, those people get you up and out the door, he said. They’ve also helped with advice on everything from nutrition to race strategies.

"It’s a good group, and that makes it quite a lot of fun," he said. "It’s hard to imagine, but I am having fun."

For Brandi, Ironman is a personal test.

"Mostly I just want to see if I can survive it," she said. "It’s a challenge to see how far I can get. It’s taken a whole year to get this far, and you don’t go through something like this for a year not to finish."

She says she feels ready, although she admits that she has no idea what to expect on race day.

"I’m nervous, definitely, and a little bit excited. Right now I’m too tired to be much of anything," she said.

Like other athletes, she has started to taper off her training routine to heal and rest up for the big day.

She’s glad she had David and the rest of the Ironman community to train with, because she says it has taken over her life – if she wasn’t training in her spare time, she was doing physiotherapy and going for massages.

"This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done."

Paul Nicholas

This is Ironman number five in five years for Paul Nicholas, including four races in Penticton and one in California. While he hasn’t had a break in his training, he says the sport is addictive.

"What’s addictive about it? The training is great, you feel really strong and healthy, and there is such a great group of people here to train with. Without them it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable," he said.

His goal, as in past years, is to beat his time of the previous year, something he has so far been able to do. Still, he recognizes that a lot depends on the day itself – if it’s windy for example, the water will be choppy for the swim, and the bike ride will be more challenging; if it’s raining, you burn more energy trying to stay warm.

"It’s such a big race, that it’s hard to set goals," he said.

With four Ironman races under his belt, Nicholas has picked up a few tips and tricks to help him through, but he says it’s impossible to swim, bike and run the perfect race.

Nicholas estimates that he has put in an average of 20 hours a week over six days, doing one or two of the activities each day. Although he’s getting a little tired of the road ride up to Pemberton after all these years, he still believes Whistler is a great place to train – partly because the winter months force you to take a break.

"It’s good to go cross-country skiing or snowboarding to break it up, because these things do take over your life a bit," he said.

After this year, Nicholas says he will probably take a break for a year.

Although he is good at motivating himself, Nicholas says the local Ironman and triathlon community has helped him a lot.

"This solo race has kind of turned into a people thing for me," he said. "Even if we train at different times, we run into each other around town, and that makes you think you should be out training too. And we put so much time in together. Even if the last thing you want to do is get off your couch, the phone will ring and the next thing you know you’re out the door.

"You ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’, and then you look around. It’s a great motivation."

Paul and Christine Suter

Paul and Christine Suter each have three Ironman’s under their belts. Christine was the first to get into the sport, and after watching most of her race – he did slip out for a round of golf – Paul was inspired to take up the sport himself.

While Christine is usually extremely competitive in the race, she has to take it easier this year.

"For me, this year is so much different because I’ve had so many injuries. I’ve had lower back problems, knee surgery, a hamstring strain – all expectations are off this year. I can swim and I can bike, but on the run I’ll just have to see what happens," she said.

She is amazed by how much the community of triathletes and Ironman competitors has grown.

"When I first got into this, the only person doing Ironman was Murray Coates, who was a huge help for me. He has done this so many times, and he was great at answering the questions and motivating me. Now there’s a whole community, and everyone is incredibly solid. There are so many great athletes," she said.

"After a while it just becomes part of your lifestyle, and for that it helps being married to somebody who is doing the same things. The whole fitness component of it is great."

Paul Suter is taking the race very seriously this year, and hopes to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

"Other years I was in it just to complete it and have fun, but this year I’m going in it to race," he said. He estimates that he will need a time of around 10:15 to qualify, and has been training towards that goal.

For Paul, the appeal of the triathlon is the fact that you aren’t training for one sport, but for three very different sports.

"It keeps it interesting, and you don’t get the monotony you might get training for one thing. And you have to maintain the same high level of fitness is all three sports, which I also kind of like," he said.

His strongest event is cycling, which he did before he got into Ironman.

"I didn’t really do any swimming or running at all," he said.

Paul used a coach this year, who developed a program for him to increase his speed and fitness. He says it is paying off.

An average week of training for Paul since January has been about 17 hours over five days, going up to 25 hours recently before tapering off.

Knowing what it takes to prepare for an Ironman, Paul says he has a lot of respect for anyone who signs up for the race.

"To do this, to go in and just compete in the race, even just to finish, you have to take it fairly serious," he said. "Even the people who don’t have race goals have still been slogging it out for long hours over the last 10 months… it all comes down to this one race."

Training in Whistler has been great, says Paul, because of the people and the facilities in town.

"Per capita, I’d say there’s more people in Whistler competing in Ironman and triathlons than in any other town. It helps because we all motivate each other to get out and do things. There’s just so much support."

John and Grace Blok

This is John Blok’s third Ironman in the last four years, with times of 12 hours 11 minutes and 11:53. He’s not a fan of the swim until the midway point when the pack thins out a little and you don’t get people kicking and splashing all around you. The bike is his strongest leg – two summers ago he passed more than 550 people on the road.

"The course is great and the climbs up the two passes are for me, and the long downhill into Penticton is a highlight, and an indicator that the end of the ride is near. It’s a tough transition from ride to run as by that time I’m not looking forward to the run," said John.

John uses flat Pepsi for an energy boost, and does his best on the run – by the midway point, only his neck and head are feeling good, he says. The spectators are great, and help him along to the finish line.

"The last 10 kilometres are really tough, and the last two are almost impossible," he said.

Blok had a knee injury earlier this year that held up his running, and he says he’s still behind where he should be from a fitness perspective, but feels ready.

"All in all, the experience has been great, and even an hour after the race I’m ready to enter again," he said. "I’m not sure why I do it, except it’s great being in great shape and having your family wonder about your mental state. Everybody can do it."

Grace made the decision to sign up for the Ironman last summer after going to the event to cheer on the competitors.

"I’m doing it partly because I didn’t think I ever would be able to do something like this, I saw it as something that was beyond me," she said.

"I did a My First Triathlon last year, and met some athletes that were registered for Ironman, and they just seemed so ordinary, just ordinary people, so I decided I had to give it a try."

Grace hopes to finish the race, and doesn’t have any expectations. She has trained hard for the past year, although not as hard as she would have liked.

"I knew it would take a lot, and I know how much time John spent, but I haven’t spent as much time as I feel I should have. Too many things going on with work and family, and I had a hard time finding time," she said.

Grace said the hardest part is the time commitment.

"You can’t sit and relax, because it’s always on your mind," she said.

She is most worried about the swimming leg, where she says she started with zero experience.

"It’s one of the things I should have spent more time on," she said.

Still, she says she has already accomplished more than she expected to in training, and is ready to give it her best.

Having John around has definitely helped, she said. "He’s been great, doing things and getting out – he’s been instrumental in encouraging me. He knows that you have bad days and good days, and he always reminds me that things will get better. He’s good at putting things in perspective."

Mae Palm

For Mae Palm, this is her fourth Penticton Ironman in the last four years. Racing in the 60 to 64 age category, she has been both a Canadian and a world champion in the sport.

Two years ago she came within eight minutes of the national record for her age group, and said she might have made it if she hadn’t stopped to talk to so many competitors and volunteers.

She says her swimming and cycling have improved, and feels confident that her running is as strong as ever – she has more than 100 marathons to her credit, as well as more than a dozen ultra marathons.

Her goal is just to finish this year, and possibly to get that record. "I just want to do the swim, finish that, get through the bike safely without falling off, and then get to the finish line. Anything else would be icing on the cake for me."

She says it’s nice to have experience in the race, and really notices the effect that more biking and swimming have had on her body. Unlike the other Whistler runners, she lives in Squamish and is self-coached.

"The problem is that if I had some time off I would go running because that’s what I liked the best, but now I’m telling myself to get on the bike or go swimming because I have the running already," she said.

Although she is always little nervous before a big race, she draws strength from the fact that she has never once had to pull out of a race in the past.

She also has more competition this year, with five other athletes in her age group. Some of them just turned 60, and will also likely be gunning for the record.

Although this makes it more of a challenge, Palm says she’s happy for anyone who enters and finishes the Ironman.

Her goal is once again to qualify for the World Championships in Hawaii – she’s already been there twice, even though she can’t afford to go. She is hoping that a sponsor, or that people in the community, can help her out with donations.

"If a lot of people gave a little, I’d be able to go," said Palm. A bank account has been set up in her name at the North Shore Credit Union to accept donations.

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