First Race of 2012

Pete VanWesenbeeck was first off the line for the Fiera Race Team in 2012, racing in this past weekend’s annual Ottawa Winterlude Triathlon.

UPDATED:  Here is Pete’s first-had report.

Saturday Feb. 4 saw the staging of the 29th edition of the Winterlude Triathlon: a unique winter event featuring an 8k skate on the world-famous Rideau Canal, a 7k ski in the Arboretum, all capped by a 5k run, in part along the icy margins of the canal. If ever there were an opportunity to test your endurance sport skills, with the added challenge of Canada’s unpredictable winter weather thrown in, this is it!

Kicking off the triathlon is an exhilarating 8km mass-start skate that winds along three-quarters of the total length of the Rideau Canal skateway. To be competitive in this race, it is crucial to use long blades with ski bindings attached, enabling a quick transition from the skate to the ski (as well as profit from the incredible efficiency of long-blade skates compared to hockey skates). Competitors share the surface with the general public, so vigilance is required throughout the race. An 8am start, however, means most Ottawans are still tucked cozily in their beds – only the keeners are out taking advantage of the glass-like conditions on the canal after a cold winter’s night of diligent work by the maintenance crews. The skate portion has the feel of a criterium, with all the requisite drafting, periodic bursts of speed, and jockeying for position found in a bike race. It has the added adrenaline rush of sharpened skate blades flashing inches from your nose, or worse, in the event of a tumble. Two people went down – that I know of – in the course of the skate. I finished, unscathed, in the top 10, benefitting from the strong draft in a relatively tight pack of lead skaters.

On to the ski – definitely my weakest event… It started off poorly and only barely improved. My hands were cold and shaking a bit as I tried to get into my bindings. I marveled at how this minor lack of manual dexterity could compromise so significantly such a basic task. Did I say “marveled”? I mean “cursed”. I hope the words going through my head at that point weren’t said out loud…they weren’t intended for public consumption. At least a half-dozen skiers passed me in the T-zone, adding to my frustration. The course is set/groomed only the night before, so passing is tricky as the snow hasn’t had much time to set and is pretty mushy. Anyway, my arms felt a little leaden for the first few km of the ski and my lack of skiing this year didn’t help with the overall co-ordination factor. I didn’t actually fall, but I did feel pretty wobbly out there until about the midway mark when I finally started to find my ski legs. The two-loop course didn’t work to my advantage, as I began the 2nd loop just behind a group of 1st loop skiers beginning to climb a small incline. One person fell just in front of me, forcing me to wait until he righted himself so I could pass. The format is definitely an incentive to ski like stink on the first loop to avoid encountering (i.e., having to pass) so many people on the 2nd loop.

After passing a few people on the first loop, I skied most of the distance on my own – the lead pack was fairly spread out. The second loop was busier, but I knew I wasn’t likely picking up any positions on the front-runners. I had no way of knowing how far ahead anyone was now that the competitors were jumbled up on the ski course, and its curvy format made it hard to see much up ahead anyway. The race director did a nice job of maximizing use of the arboretum, incorporating a few small climbs, some straightaway and lots of turning, to make for an interesting ski race, overall. It finished back down on the canal, where the second T-zone awaited with our frozen running shoes, stuck in a snowbank.

I guess the transition from skate-skiing to running isn’t completely unlike going from cycling to running: the heart-rate is high, the quads are spent, the calves have to adjust to more of an abrupt contraction, and the hip flexors have to drive forward with much more authority. I quickly unstrapped my ski boots, donned my runners, tore off my vest to proudly expose my Fiera Race Team singlet, and headed for the exit. (Editor: images of superman!) After a few hundred meters of adjusting to the new cadence of running (and missing the timing mat on the way out of the T-zone: my fault), I settled into an easy pace and attempted to catch my breath. I don’t know why, but starting the run in any sort of triathlon always catches me and I have to ease into it. Apparently I don’t do enough brick workouts (it shouldn’t be hard to improve on this…doing one would be a good start…). By about the halfway mark, I was in a good groove and slowly started picking up a few more people that had kicked my butt in the ski. Cornering on the ice was tricky at times and I began to understand how Bambi felt. It’s hard to suddenly change direction when the only contact between you and Zamboni-smooth ice is a pair of snow-encrusted runners, and you have a decent amount of forward momentum, to boot. I had been playing around with trying to mount screws in the soles of some runners the night before, but only succeeded in puncturing an air bag in an old pair of Nikes. That sucker ptttthhh’ed around my workshop like nobody’s business! My Wile E. Coyote days are behind me, much to my wife’s relief.

All told, I finished in 6th place; 4th in my age group. It’s the third time I’ve participated in the race, and every time reinforces how much fun it is. Part of the thrill is being part of a 300-strong group of fellow winter enthusiasts, taking advantage of the unique conditions that exist in our nation’s capital enabling such an event: a (typically) robust winter, a super-long canal that is flooded and turned into a massive skating rink, and a group of people who recognize the potential of the above and undertake the effort of organizing the race. I strongly urge anyone on the team to give this race a try if you find yourself in Ottawa in early February – it really is a good challenge, and a good time!

Full results here.

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