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Dispatch: Project Penny (Challenge Penticton), Chapter Four

Project Penny comes to a close as our three editors report on their race day experiences at Challenge Penticton.

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Project Penny comes to a close as our three editors report on their race day experiences at Challenge Penticton. Read chapters one, two and three, and view a photo diary from their race week.

Name: Julia Polloreno
Title: Editor-in-Chief
Age: 35

When Challenge Penticton was announced, a lot of us were curious to see how the race series, based largely in Europe and Asia, would translate on North American soil. Challenge Roth in Germany has become one of the most sought after races in the world—the 2014 race sold out in 90 seconds—and the Walchshöfer family is on a mission to recreate that experience in Penticton. But it’ll require some patience, a fact that’s not lost on Challenge CEO Felix Walchshöfer and the native Penticton crew. So on multiple occasions throughout race weekend the race host and organizers were quick to thank racers for being there, for having the good faith in their ability to create a worthwhile experience in the face of transition.

Somewhere around the 75-mile mark on the bike, it occurred to me that people who chose to race here were in it solely for the personal challenge and experience, not to chase a world championship slot or hear Mike Reilly declare them an Ironman (also two immensely gratifying pursuits). In a way, it seemed like a return to basics. Something about that mid-race musing, paired with the constant, rhythmic whir of my rotating cranks, imparted a sense of calm.

I was most nervous about the swim. I’m a decent swimmer and had logged some solid pool time in prep for Penticton, but the thought of swimming that far without stopping never ceases to intimidate me. Looking out over Lake Okanagan before the start, I knew we’d be in for a tough swim. The wind had kicked up, creating small swells and rough chop that would make sighting tricky (in the massage tent after the race, I heard my neighbor say he battled residual sea sickness through the first half of the bike leg). But in the final minutes before the race start, the anxiety lifted inexplicably, replaced by a distinct sense of gratitude and hopeful anticipation. Moments later we were churning toward the first buoy, and I found my rhythm. My sighting fears were quickly legitimized, and I ended up wasting a fair amount of time and energy resetting my course multiple times. Still, I felt energized by the incredible setting—the lake water was pristine and the temperature was ideal: wetsuit-legal but not achingly chilly. I watched the sun rise higher into the sky, and saw the horizon loom closer. Getting to my feet, I heard the announcer say my Project Penny teammate Jené Shaw was in transition. The hunt for Jené prey was on.

With the eager help of some wetsuit strippers and changing tent volunteers, I was quickly out of T1 and onto my bike. The first third of the bike course flew by, with tidy grids of grape vines and fruit orchards stretching in every absurdly scenic direction. At one out-and-bike stretch that cut through a vineyard, a few cyclists coming toward me had to hit the brakes hard to avoid hitting a family of deer crossing the road. Miles 90-100 provided the lowest point of my entire day, as my mind started to wander and my stomach began to rebel from my regimented intake of sports drink and bars. I questioned how I’d be able to run a marathon, let alone at goal pace. But then I invoked my chosen mantra for the day: Live in the moment. I’d worry about how I’d run a marathon as soon as I got off my bike. I dumped the rest of my sports drink and filled my bottles with water for the ride back into town, and was feeling much better by the time I reached T2. I’d really wanted to ride sub-six hours and tried to ignore the sting of disappointment at missing that goal by less than 20 minutes.

Onto the run, my legs felt strong and my rhythm steady. I ticked off mile after mile, walking through each aid station for swigs of ice-cold Pepsi, bites of juicy watermelon and the occasional salt pill. I can’t say enough about the generous souls at those aid stations who cheered us on with such earnest enthusiasm and made each racer feel like they were hometown hero Jeff Symonds racing toward the win. The out-and-back course let us follow the action of the pro race, and also helped keep an eye on the age-group competition. Two hours into the run (and a good buffeting by headwinds later), I reached the turnaround for home, and the thought of being so close to the finish after such a long day gave me a huge surge for the next few miles. I also got a big lift from seeing my husband Lance at various spots along the lakeside run course. He actually rented a boat and beached it at various points to snap photos and slap some high-fives. Not knowing if I might see him around any given corner made the run way more tolerable.

The last five miles of the run were purely an exercise of mental will to lift one foot off the ground and then the other. My pace slowed considerably, and I just coasted on autopilot back into downtown Penticton. My goal was to finish in under 12 hours, and it would be close. I also spotted a girl in my age group closing in, and the final out-and-back toward the finish line was a paranoid sprint until I reached the red carpet and looked at my watch. 11:51. Felix was just beyond the finish line, arms outstretched for a congratulatory bear hug. The warmth and hospitality shown to our crew during this whole experience won’t soon be forgotten. Thank you, Felix!

I’m also so grateful to my coach and friend Jimmy Riccitello, who always kept the training fun and efficient and acted like my race goal was a foregone conclusion. OH and for helping me better my previous iron-distance PR by about two and a half hours. Jimmy is the real deal, thanks JR!

The transition from Ironman to Challenge wasn’t without its hiccups, but on the whole I was impressed by how the inaugural race went off, endlessly amazed by the staggering beauty of the venue, and grateful for the generous spirit of the people of Penticton, who are committed to recreating something special here.

PHOTOS: Project Penny (Challenge Penticton) Photo Diary

Name: Jené Shaw
Title: Senior Editor
Age: 29

Allow me to interrupt my post-race “eating whatever I want” window to type up this report…

As soon as we set foot in Penticton, I felt incredibly welcomed by everyone we encountered. This race weekend was just a big love fest—between the mayor saying it was “destiny” to meet Felix, to the heartfelt gratitude of the Challenge Family for the athletes and volunteers—there were more hugs, thank yous and tears than I’ve ever seen at any race.

I swear to you locals wouldn’t stop thanking us for coming to their town, or asking us to sign race posters, or offering to help us find something. Countless businesses proudly hung Challenge Penticton banners, and many others changed their marquees to cater to triathletes. (My favorite? The Greek restaurant that posted “Let us carb your load.” Oh, Canadians.)

The Race
The windy and consequently choppy swim slowed me down and made sighting difficult, so I exited the water slower than I think I should’ve (1:10). But I know I’m at least a slightly better swimmer than that, and when I found out that the pro leaders got out around 55 minutes, I was at peace knowing my fitness wasn’t really well represented. Not a huge deal.

As soon as I got onto my bike, I realized that my Garmin had mysteriously taken “speed” off the display, and because I’m too dumb to figure it out on the fly, all I had the whole ride was elapsed time and mileage. I’m fine racing by feel—it’s what I’ve done all year—but it could’ve helped a bit mentally.

You can really ride the first 40 miles fast and effortlessly, and even the dreaded Richter Pass was nothing crazy. It was those rolling suckers in the middle where you can’t stay aero, but you also don’t get enough satisfying downhill momentum to carry you right back up. I think around mile 75 was when I started getting pretty fidgety in the aero position, my body started feeling bonky (hmm, a foreshadowing?) and my pace felt much slower. Thankfully that long downhill at the end perked me back up a bit.

I have to say that having less competitors on the course was fantastic for bike purposes. I didn’t waste energy weaving through people or having the awkward cat-and-mouse game per usual, and it felt more like my own race instead of a race to avoid being in someone’s draft.

As I was leaving T2, I thought I heard the announcer say, “Our first amateur female is heading out on the run course!” Huh? I kind of laughed it off and headed out shaking my head. But as I started counting the girls coming at me from the out and back, I realized that the six pro women had passed and then… no one else was there. Where I stand in the race will probably never change my pace or approach, because, let’s face it, I’m not that fast or competitive. But it felt pretty good to be cheered on as a top 10 female. One woman passed me around mile 15 and another one after mile 20, and when I crossed the finish line, they said I was the third overall amateur female (thank you, small field!). While I was letting that soak in, I got another big, warm hug from Felix. My 11:13 was a huge improvement from Ironman Lake Placid last year (11:57) and still a PR from my best in Arizona (11:23), so overall, a huge success athletically!

I guess I can’t talk about the race without addressing the post-race. Fun times ahead!

After I finished, I spent the next 90 minutes lying on the ground with my legs up, drinking chicken broth and chatting with my friend Dan, a Team TBB member who had finished a loooong time before I got there. I was still lying there when Julia crossed, and we stayed there talking for a bit before we eventually got up to find Holly and go home.

In a timespan of about three seconds, I went from telling Julia, “I…don’t…feel so good,” to fainting. I woke up to about 10 med tent volunteers around me who put me in a wheelchair and got me into the tent for an immediate IV. I don’t remember a lot of it, just that they kept asking me my name (and mispronouncing it back to me, which I didn’t have the strength to fight), and telling me that my blood pressure was extremely low. After poking and prodding and giving me two IVs that didn’t change my condition, I remember getting moved to a stretcher, getting in an ambulance, and arriving at the ER.

For the next few hours, they kept a third IV going while they did a bunch of blood and heart tests. It took a while to get me back to talking, for my (already pale) skin color to return to normal, and to keep any food down. By about 11 p.m. I was back to myself and enjoyed a celebratory hospital meal of a packaged muffin, processed peanut butter and apple juice. Jealous?? I can’t explain exactly what happened, and it will take further investigation with some doctors here, but hopefully I can get that figured out. I left around midnight and woke up feeling fine. The doctor said I was only allowed to go wine tasting Monday if I kept the ratio of water higher than alcohol. Deal.

I’m so proud of Julia and Holly for a host of reasons, and this experience wouldn’t have meant nearly as much to me without them there. Thank you so much to the Penticton community for being so welcoming, and to the Challenge Family for putting on a spectacular event that I’m so excited to see grow in years to come.

PHOTOS: 2013 Challenge Penticton

Name: Holly Bennett
Title: Editor-at-Large
Age: 45

Oh Canada!

Challenge Penticton 2013 is now officially under our belts, although I’m still north of the border enjoying a few vacation days and the best wine tasting the Okanagan Valley has to offer–and trust me, the wine alone is reason enough to visit and race in this region. Eclectic and elaborate vineyards dot the bike and run course, as do numerous farm stands full of juicy fruit and fresh produce, tempting athletes with respite from the relentless hills and overdose of sports drink and gels. It’s a bountiful and welcoming area–a must for any athlete looking for a cool dose of Canadian culture and stunning environs within which to frame their competitive experience.

I choose destination race locales for exactly this reason: because regardless of the result, the race and the experiences surrounding it ultimately prove positive. Although my performance on Sunday wasn’t quite up to par with what I hoped I would pull off–and what I felt perfectly prepared to do–with a day or two of perspective the end result doesn’t matter. Sure, I allowed myself a 24-hour “wallow window” to bemoan the ways in which I feel I fell short. But then I shut that window hard and fast, preferring instead to glean the many positives from my race day, to revel in what I’ve accomplished and to relax and enjoy this amazing venue.

Race day itself was, in fact, awesome. I carried a feeling of honor into the water with me, being part of a milestone in Challenge Family history, one of the first athletes racing under the Challenge banner in their inaugural North American event. I was excited yet calm, full of the intense emotion of race morning while also feeling ready for whatever would confront me on the course ahead. Pretty much immediately I faced the first obstacle–unusually choppy water in normally calm Lake Okanagan, which seemed to slow the swim for even the strongest competitors (not to mention swim weaklings like myself). When I finally returned to shore 10 minutes behind my goal time I didn’t let the clock deter my confidence–I simply turned my focus to the bike, knowing that I could only influence the road ahead.

The bike course in Penticton is far tougher than I remembered from my race here three years ago. It’s honestly not the oft-talked about climbs up Richter Pass and Yellow Lake that sapped my strength, but rather the order of things. The first section is the easiest, with a series of rollers and flats that allowed me to feel absolutely on fire. I was ready for Richter when I rolled up to its base, and my ascent was strong, steady and controlled. But after cresting and descending I hit the next series of climbs–the part my memory had magically erased–that simply seemed endless. Hill upon hill arose ahead of me and bit-by-bit my pace slowed. My “on fire” feeling was far gone, as were my Plan A, B, C and probably D. But as endurance events nearly always necessitate, I adjusted on the fly, gave myself a major pep talk and turned my attention to the marathon.

Of all three disciplines, I love to run. Unlike a majority of triathletes I long to get out of the saddle and into the final race leg. No matter what happens in the swim and on the bike, T2 offers a fresh start–one I’m always eager to embrace. I felt that so much so on Sunday (and I was so far off where I wanted to be time-wise when I finally racked my bike) that I stopped and restarted my watch, honing in solely on running the best marathon I could muster.

The first stretch through downtown Penticton is energizing, the cheering crowds easing the awkward discomfort and shock to the body of transitioning from bike to run. I didn’t exactly fly through town, but I felt strong enough and fairly certain I could increase my pace as I clicked through the next few kilometers. Unfortunately, the next few kilometers led me directly into a hard headwind, which significantly hindered my run speed. I kept driving my elbows and turning over my legs and I never once walked, but my progress felt frustratingly slow. The demons of disappointment hovered, threatening to derail what remained of my positive attitude.

The center section of the run course is a six-kilometer stretch replete with hills. It’s anything but easy, and I knew I was going to need something special to get through it unscathed. My coach had said that when it gets tough I should try to find something to focus on–maybe something as simple as counting to myself. So I tried it: One, two, three...The first hill came and went with relative ease. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Over and over, the entire second half of the marathon straight through to the finish line, I counted off sets of 10 with every exhale. And with that I finally found my mojo, managed to get into strong running form, dug deep into my energy stores and in the end was able to negative split the run. It wasn’t an inspirational message or a gutsy mantra that kept me going–it was merely 10 simple numbers strung out like a lifeline that ultimately saved my race.

Crossing the Challenge finish line felt like running straight into the heart of a huge embrace from family and friends. Felix (Challenge Family CEO) was there to welcome and hug me, and to take me straight to the medical tent when my lungs closed up in an asthma attack the moment I stopped running. Thanks to Felix for staying with me until he was assured I was OK, as well as to Chris for his awesome race day support and for waiting for what must have seemed like forever outside the tent (he was not allowed inside) until I was released. A big shout-out goes to my teammates Jené and Julia, who I am insanely proud of for their personal best performances (and for the ass-whooping they both gave me). I’m also deeply thankful to the incredible race staff, the flawless volunteers and the entire city of Penticton for opening their hearts and streets to us athletes in support of this crazy cool journey called Challenge.

So that’s a wrap on my Baker’s Dozen race for August. I’ll still need four more races to complete my 2013 race-a-month project, but at the moment I can’t quite fathom finding my way to another start line as soon as September. First I’ll let my post-race cankles subside and continue sipping some fine Okanagan wine.


Read about Holly’s other Baker’s Dozen races from 2013.

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