They are what get us out the door when all we want is to sit on the couch and relax. What gets us to the pool for another hour session while your buddies are going to grab lunch. What pushes us through that last 10K up at the cottage when you know your family and a cold beer is just a moment away if you decide to quit right here and now. They are our goals. The things we decide months in advance are important to us, for one reason or another. To show others what we can do, to show OURSELVES what we can do. To see just how far I can push this body of mine. See if I will crack, either physically or mentally, or if I can overcome and reach that goal that I have put so much importance on. I set a lot of goals for myself, particularly in sport, and this year there was no bigger goal for me than Ironman.
I signed up for Ironman Mont Tremblant way back in October of 2015. I had known for a while that I wanted to do one, but I had always told myself that I would wait until I was 40. While out on a trail run the idea kept bouncing around my head that my fitness was good enough and with the kids getting older I was able to manipulate my schedule in such a way that I could get in the necessary training. I knew I had the Boston Marathon to look forward to training for in April, so I decided to call Coach Sheri Fraser to see how realistic it would be to train for both Boston and my first Ironman at the same time. She assured me that I could do it and after discussing my Ironman idea with Michelle I took the plunge and signed myself up.
The training was long and arduous, officially beginning on February 1, but unofficially building fitness in the pool, on the bike trainer and on the run all through the winter. No offseason. It was worth it though as I had a great marathon training block capped by a solid showing on a very tough day in Boston and age group podiums (and even a second overall) in all of my triathlons leading up to the big day in Quebec. I had done the training under the watchful eye of a great coach and I just had to trust that she knew what she was doing and the results would be there on race day.
We made the 8 hour drive to Mont Tremblant on the Thursday before race day and checked into our condo without any issues. There was Michelle and the kids, my Mum and Dad, and my sister Emily along with her husband Jon and their two kids…a full house. My brother Dave even came up from Montreal for the night on Friday. We took it pretty easy leading up to race day on Sunday, only hitting the Ironman Village when necessary and staying off my feet as much as I could. I was able to get over to see Coach Sheri and a bunch of my teammates for some last minute advice as well as an easy prerace ride of the toughest part of the bike course, the out and back hills on Chemin Duplessis. I also hit Lac Tremblant a couple of times to get some easy swimming in, and I took advantage of the Coffee Barge that was out in the lake serving triathletes free espresso…what a treat! Before long it was Saturday night and the eve of the race was upon us…off to bed to try and get some sleep at 8:30.
The alarm broke my slumber at 3:45 and I headed downstairs to grab a cup of coffee and a bagel with peanut butter. Michelle was up shortly after and the two of us headed across the street to catch the shuttle to the Ironman Village. We arrived on site shortly after 5am and I checked on my bike, pumping the tires and loading my food and drinks, then did a last minute check of my swim-to-bike and bike-to-run bags before getting in line for body marking. As soon as I peeled off my London Triathlon Club sweatshirt to reveal my Team Sheri tye dye jersey I had a pair of hands grab me by the shoulders from behind…I turned around and it was Nick, one of my teammates that I had just met a couple nights earlier at Sheri’s place. We chatted while we waited in line and wished each other luck. After getting marked up I met up with Michelle and we began the walk down to the beach. As the roads merged Michelle spotted my Mum and Dad, my sister and Kennedy and Jackson…they had taken a shuttle to come watch the start and it was great to see them before things got started. We waited around at the beach for a bit and there were some bagpipers playing some music followed by a couple of welcome speeches and the National Anthem, then a real treat as we had a flyover from a CF-18…wow! The noise was incredible and people were really starting to get pumped up.
I got my wetsuit on and hopped into the water for a quick warmup swim and then got myself situated in the sea of lime green swim caps that made up the Men’s 35-39 age group. The pro men kicked the race off at 6:35, followed by the pro women and then Men 18-34. We were up at 6:45. I had met up with my buddy Matt, who I’ve trained with all summer at Splash n Dash, and we chatted a bit and he gave me some tips for the mass start…this was his 4th or 5th Ironman so I welcomed the advice. We lined up together as far to the right as we could and when the horn went off I held his feet for all of 10 seconds…man there were a lot of people!
Swim – 3.8K (2.4 miles)
1:05:44 (1:43/100m), 25/257 AG
A 3800m swim, 180K bike and a full 42.2K marathon loomed before me. I stood at the edge of the beach waiting for the day to start and I realized I wasn’t even nervous. I had a healthy respect for the distance and the task at hand, but nerves didn’t come into play. I was ready. I dove into the cool waters and started to swim. I focused on my stroke, on my breathing, the roll of my body. “Where is Matt?”, I wondered. Before long that question was answered as I swam up on him. I tucked in beside him for a little bit and noticed that I was pulling ahead. I took this as a good sign as I consider us fairly even in the water, giving him a slight edge. I wondered if I was swimming too hard but it felt easy…that was what counted right now. In no time I was onto the blue caps from the wave before us. I had already closed the 3 minute gap on them and was now dealing with a lot of traffic. I kept Matt’s advice and stayed off to the side, finding what clean water I could. I came up on some feet now and then but there was no one going fast enough for me to utilize their draft.
As I approached the halfway point of the swim I noticed that the waves were starting to roll pretty good…the wind was at our backs from the south and it was picking up. I was fighting the waves a bit but knew it was going to be a tough choppy swim on the way back. Sure enough as I made the turn to swim the short across portion of the out across and back swim I felt the waves slamming me on my right hand side (the side I like to sight from). Fortunately there were only a couple of buoys to pass before turning to head to the finish, but heading to the finish meant shipping directly into the chop. I was certainly aware of it but I didn’t let it bother me too much…I just kept swimming while thinking about my form. Body roll. Big arms. Strong pull. At the awards ceremony the following day, women’s winner Mary-Beth Ellis said that the swim was as rough as any ocean swim she has had to compete in. Again, I didn’t think it was that bad…not easy but not ocean waves by any means. I was just cruising along and felt really good…I’ll often get bored and zone out during the swim in longer races but I was focused the entire time on this day, just being aware of what my body was doing and making sure I maintained good form. Coach Sheri was definitely in my ear.
I hit the shallow waters and soon enough my stroke started to grab sand so I popped up out of the water and started peeling my wetsuit down to my waist. I remembered Sheri’s tip about the wetsuit strippers and ran past the first ones and all the way to the last bunch who were standing around just waiting for people. I plopped to my bum and the two volunteers ripped the suit off my legs. I said Merci Beaucoup and ran off with my suit in hand…it was nearly 500m of running along the red carpet to the change tent. I ran quickly and passed a bunch of lollygaggers along the way, then grabbed my swim-to-bike bag and hit the change room. I made short work of my helmet and sunglasses, then tossed my wetsuit, swim cap and goggles in the bag before handing it off to a volunteer and running another 300m through transition, bike shoes in hand, to find my bike on its rack. I had a great spot near the bike exit and only a couple of spots in from the end. I slipped my shoes on and ran to the mount line, ready for the next stage of the day.
Bike – 180K (112 miles)
5:31:04 (32.6kph), 26/257 AG
The bike was going to be dicey. Rain was in the forecast and the dark skies looked ominous. The course had no shortage of hills with 1800m/6000’ worth of climbing. My longest ride in preparation for the day was just over 180K, so I knew I could do the distance, but there just aren’t hills like this where I live, and I hadn’t been out at all this year in the rain…it has been an extremely dry summer in Southwestern Ontario. I wanted to go out strong on the first 90K loop and hit the hills with what I could and then take it easier on the second to make sure my legs weren’t cooked for the run.
I jumped on the bike and took off from transition…Michelle and the family were there at the mount line to cheer me on and shortly after I saw Sheri as well, who informed me I was the first one (of our group) out on the bike. I settled into an easy cadence around 100rpm and began to tackle the course. We rode along the road out of the Village towards the highway, about a 15K trek. The highway is divided and the entire Northbound side was shut down for the race with all of the vehicle traffic routed across the median in the Southbound lanes. Never have I been fortunate enough to ride a bike course that is completely shut down to vehicular traffic like this was, such a treat. On top of the traffic-free course, all of the roads were pristine…beautiful, smooth asphalt the entire ride.
As I was spinning away along the highway the rain started. At first I wasn’t sure, but it looked like some raindrop spots were on the road ahead of me. It didn’t take long to confirm the rain as it started pattering down on my helmet…plop plop plop, just like the sound of rain while you’re in a tent. I knew it was coming though so it didn’t phase me…just roll with it and take the day as it comes, not much else you can do. I continued to ride hard in the wet conditions and made it out to the first turnaround on the highway. As I made the turn I was greeted by a blast of headwind accompanied by stinging rain in my face. The wind out of the south was strong, with gusts reaching 40kph. I reached the top of the first hill heading south on the highway and was able to grab water, Gatorade and a banana half, discarding my empty bottles in the hockey nets provided…a fun mini-game trying to score on the volunteers manning the nets with their hockey sticks. I was drinking constantly and taking in plenty of calories courtesy of broken up pieces of bagels and Clif Bars as well as salted mini potatoes. Adding in the bananas at aid stations as well as the Gatorade and I was able to average between 200-250 calories per hour, supplemented with an eLoad Zone Cap salt tab once an hour. Nutrition was always going to be a wildcard on this day, but I had trained with this strategy and it had worked so there was no reason to fear any GI issues on the day.
I continued up the hills on the highway and heard a rider come buzzing up behind saying I was looking good…it was Scott, one of my teammates. He cruised by on his way and I just kept spinning quick and easy up the highway. Eventually we pulled off of the highway and made the quick skip into town. The crowds were out lining the streets cheering us all on, such a great morale boost! After a quick climb up to downtown we turned and headed back on the return road towards transition. There were a couple of climbs going back up Montée Ryan and going up the second of them I saw Scott up ahead of me. I was climbing well and making up ground on people at every hill we came to. I made a rookie mistake on the hill though and shifted from the big ring up front to my small ring and dropped the chain. D’oh! Luckily I was able to quickly get unclipped and yell out to those behind me that I was stopping and managed to stay upright…would have been very easy to fall over on an incline like that. Again I stuck to the theme of my day and didn’t let it get to me…no panic, just get the chain back on and grind my way up the rest of the hill from a dead stop. As Jackson would say, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” I didn’t dwell on the chain drop, but I did worry a bit as I knew the tough Chemin Duplessis hills were only a few minutes away and I was going to need that small ring up front. I went through it in my head, making sure to shift carefully and not just slam the shifter down hard all the way, and also getting into the small ring long before the last minute.
I zoomed past transition to complete the last 16K of the first loop, the dreaded Chemin Duplessis out and back. A challenging section with a 125m climb out and then a fast downhill back to transition…and it was just bucketing rain by now. Spectators lined both sides of the road in this section encouraging everyone up the hills with their shouts of “Allez! Allez! Allez!” I was able to pick out the family and Sheri along the route here as well, always a nice boost to see familiar faces. I spotted Scott on one of the first hills on the way up and scooted past him…I really enjoy climbing and just loved this section of the ride (at least this first time!). I was able to get in and out of my small chainring without issue, just being aware of what I was doing and not being stupid with my shifting. After ascending the final hill I made the turn at the top and zoomed down the hill towards the halfway 90K turnaround. I was on the brakes and still hitting speeds of 60kph in the pouring rain. I just made sure to be aware of those around me and was careful to hold my line. I heard of a couple of really nasty accidents that occurred on this stretch after the race and honestly can’t say that I was surprised. The course itself wasn’t dangerous, even under the conditions, but there are a lot of athletes that managed to make it dangerous, for themselves and others, simply by not using their common sense.
I hit the halfway point in 2:38, a time I was more than happy with. The legs still felt really good but I made sure to start taking it a bit easier for the second loop. I spun easier, going one gear easier than “easy”. I had a few guys still go flying by me but I was still able to pass a good number of riders, many of whom were out on their first loop. The rain continued to teem down on us and I was absolutely drenched. I made the decision to not wear socks on the bike leg and I believe it was the right choice…I couldn’t imagine how awful they would have felt in this rain. My bike was getting to be unhappy with all of the water and was starting to make some creaking noises, especially on the hills, and the shifting was nowhere near as crisp as it was to start with. After the race Sheri picked up my bike for me and noticed that my rear tire was actually rubbing on the cutout on my seat tube…I was working harder than I needed to with every pedal stroke. My chain was also covered in little rust spots afterwards despite having just lubed it. I could barely see at times as my glasses were so wet, coupled with the rain and road spray. Plenty of excuses but none of these things put me off during the ride…I just kept pedalling, drinking and eating. My food was in a gross, sorry state towards the end due to all the water as well…my bagels were disgusting, just a soggy mess of yuck, and my potatoes were now mashed potatoes. I knew I had to keep taking in the calories though, so I just made a scoop with my hand and dug right in.
An uneventful second loop and I eventually made it back to the Duplessis out and back. I decided before I got there that I wouldn’t attack the hills in the same manner as I had the first time, I was just going to drop into the small ring right away and take every hill a bit easier. I jumped back up to the big ring for any descents, but the strategy worked well. On one of the larger climbs I saw a volunteer out in the middle of the road telling the riders coming down the hill to slow down, go easy and get on their brakes. It turns out this was the Race Director himself and he was out there because of a very bad crash that had occurred earlier. I made sure to be careful as I came down the hill and I nodded when he said “Easy easy”, to which he gave me a thumbs and said, “Yes! I like it!!” I made it safely to the bottom of the hills and turned into T2, jumping off my bike at the line and handing the bike off to a volunteer, then running to grab my bike-to-run bag in the change tent. Thank goodness those bags were in the tent to stay dry! Swim done, bike done, just a marathon to go!
Run – 42.2K (26.2 miles)
3:57:12 (5:37/km), 29/257 AG
The rain continued as I set out on my run. I was hoping to hold my pace around 5:00/km (8:00/mile) and I could look to pick it up a bit in the last 10K if I had anything left to give (spoiler alert: I didn’t). I run past the cheers of the family, who were happy to see me looking happy and able to wave after the long bike ride. It didn’t take me too long to find a friend on the run as a young guy named Trevor came up from behind me and asked what pace I was running…he must have liked my answer because we ran together through the 5K or so. He also commented that he was a fan of my pink sparkle visor…between the tye dye jersey and pink sparkle visor I always get plenty of comments out on the run. I was hitting every aid station out there, grabbing water and dumping it over my head (it was still raining, but it was sooooo humid!), or grabbing Coke and maybe a banana. I did end up having to use the port-a-potty at one point as the pressure was building up inside of me to the point that it was painful. I jumped in and started to relieve the pressure and there were immediately rumblings of another kind (TMI, sorry). In total I lost almost 3 minutes for the two bathroom stops, but I likely saved that time and more in comfort so it was worth it. This run course was two loops and was easy to break up. The first 5K was on the hilly road out to the town of Mont Tremblant, and from there we turned onto a flatter, sheltered path called ‘Le P’tit Train du Nord’, translated ‘the little train of the North’, which we took for another 5K before turning around and heading back on the same path to the finish area. It is an old railway that has been paved over to create a 200km bike path heading north from Montreal. It is tree-lined on both sides providing excellent cover from the sun, but on this day all that cover did was hold the humidity.
I lost Trevor for a little bit but he caught back up to me and then took off ahead on his own…we ended up leapfrogging each other throughout the entire run leg, finishing within about a minute and a half of each other. It’s always great to have someone to run with and keep you honest and pushing on. I was able to hold my pace where I wanted it until just before the halfway point. It was all too much though and I was getting beat. I had just run the hilly section for 5K back to the finish area, and unlike the first time running the hills, I had to turn right around and run them again. My legs were gassed and I decided to let myself walk two of the hills, but that was it. Trevor came up from behind me again and gave a few words of encouragement and I got back at it. I was also buoyed on the run by seeing some friendly faces out on the course…I was just a little ways ahead of both Scott and Matt so I saw them at the turnarounds, and another buddy doing the race, Zindine, wasn’t too far back either. There were other Sheri shirts on course and we all cheered each other on, and I saw another teammate, Mary-Elizabeth (also doing her first Ironman) rocking her awesome Smashfest kit..I think we even got a high-five (not 100% sure, I may be making that up!).
I was struggling again through the flatter railpath section, and as I hit the 30K mark just before the railpath turnaround I let myself walk one more time, this time for 100m (which became 150m) and then no more. I told myself that I had to run the rest of the railpath and then I would deal with the last 5K of hills. I was leaning towards switching to a run-walk-run once I got back there, but I was feeling alright (enough) that I decided to keep running. Around that point I heard someone unexpectedly call out my name and it was Zindine’s wife Irina…always a boost when you have an encouraging spectator and she was in the perfect spot for me there. I decided to ditch the run-walk and went with plan B…let myself walk two more hills. I sorta realized this plan as I was already about halfway up a longish hill, and I didn’t want to waste my walk break on half of a hill, so I just kept plowing my way up the hill. Before I knew it there was another hill, but I decided it was too short to waste a walk on. This game continued and soon enough I was nearing the end of the run and still hadn’t taken a walk break. My goal going into the day was to run the marathon in under 4 hours and I was going to be close to meeting that goal, so I just decided to scrap any idea of walking and run this thing home. I made my way up the last big hill and turned into the pedestrian village for the final 500m downhill stretch to the finish line. I was sprinting (ya right…) as hard as I could, smelling the finish line just around the corner. I came to the split for the finish chute/lap two and I gladly kept left this time. The smile on my face must have been huge…I was slapping the hands of spectators down the chute and started to slow down to savour the moment. I made the final bend and saw the finish arch before me…I looked for Michelle and the family but it was just a sea of people and excitement down there. I heard my name called out, “Mike Cooke of London Ontario…YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” I stopped before the finish line and turned in a big circle to the crowd around me, clapping my hands, blowing kisses and finally raising my arms to cross the line. I had done it, completing the race on a really tough day in a very respectable 10:40:48, good for 29th in my age group and 180th out of 2500 or so competitors. Pretty decent debut, super happy with it. My goal was to finish in under 11 hours and I was well within the goal, despite rain on my parade.
After crossing I was ushered to the food tent where I got some food in me and a space blanket to warm me up…the chill set in quickly. There was delicious chicken noodle soup which was full of everything I needed, and the food that sealed the deal was from the food truck handing out poutine…yum! I bounced out of the food tent feeling really good (and with a coffee in hand!) and met up with the whole family right away. Many hugs and kisses, the best reward for the day.
We headed back to the condo where I was able to enjoy a nice hot bath in the Jacuzzi and then shower off before grabbing a beer and a couple slices of pizza. Michelle and I then hopped in the Jeep and drove back down to the finish to cheer in the last athletes of the day until midnight. It was an amazing scene and something that we were both thrilled to be a part of. We even saw one of my teammates, Colm, and his wife Joanne, so we called them up to the bleachers to cheer with us. Colm won his age group (70 years old! He’s a beast.) and is heading to the World Championships in Hawaii…what an inspiration! We wrapped up at the finish and headed back home…it was finally time to put my head down and call it a day.
If you made it this far in this post I think you are also worthy of the title ‘Ironman’…seriously, I went on long enough, right? So thanks for reading and most of all thanks to my family who gave me the support I needed throughout the year leading up to this race. Without their sacrifices I would never be able to do this…so a huge thanks to you guys from the bottom of my heart.