Challenge Penticton: a Tough Decision that Ends with a Smile

I’ve had a lot of people asking me “what happened at Challenge Penticton? You were doing so great and then you just disappeared?” So I thought I might give a quick breakdown of what exactly happened out there on race day, and the story behind my first ever DNF (still hurts to even say it.)

Bike Check-in Day

Race Morning:

I was up at 3am, giving me my 3hr breakfast window pre-race. Everything went smooth in the morning, I was 110% ready to go out and bury myself all the way to the line, my body was tapered and peaked just perfectly. Walking down to the beach for the start, my arms felt limber and ready to swim.

Swim:

Gun went off, and it was a dolphin diving frenzy. With about 30-40m of shallow water to cover, dolphin diving was the best option. MacCormack went off the front right away, and other than Symonds eventually bridging up and Whyte getting a bit ahead, I made the main pack no problem. As I looked around and noticed Karen Thibodeau’s Nineteen Rogue tiger stripes, Adam O’Meara and Chris Bagg, I knew I was swimming well. The crazy thing was, it felt effortless, easily staying right in the middle of the pack, even in the rough water. We exited as a bunch, and I made a mad dash through T1, knowing how important it was to get out on the bike course first.

The mad dash for a good spot

Bike:

Coming out of T1 in 4th

I came out of T1 in 4th place, behind MacCormack, Symonds, and Whyte. I immediately settled into my power zone, knowing it would be a long day. In Maclean Creek (about 30mins in,) Chris Bagg and Scott DeFilipis caught me, and we rode as a group through to Righter pass. I was feeling very strong, high power and low effort, very in control. We hit the flat portion of road at the bottom of Righter, and that’s when things started to go wrong…….

I’m third in the line, with Chris Bagg and Scott DeFilipis in front.
Smiling the first 80km with DeFilipis and Bagg

I got that sinking feeling associated with the bouncy, spongy handling of a bike when it’s getting a flat tire. I looked down and thought “okay, no big deal, I can handle this.” I made an emergency stop, put the sealant in the tire, and when I went to use my (brand new) CO2 inflation head, it blew to pieces in my hands. With about 70psi of air or so in the tire, I just got back on and started to go gang-busters up Richter to catch Bagg and DeFilipis. I was just catching Bagg by the top, but halfway down the decent I noticed the tire start to go flat again.

Shit.

I pulled over, and a motorcycle support was there asap to help me fix the flat. We tried sealing it for a while, and refilled it, but it didn’t seem like it was going to work. Standing on the side of the road watching empty space behind me slowly start to fill with other riders (we had a good 6-8min gap on the next group,) was brutally frustrating. But I knew with 90km left and a marathon, I could make up ground. We got the flat adequately fixed, and off I went. I had started to reel in some of the guys, and once again the front wheel went flat.

“Jesus,” I thought, “what else could go wrong?” Oh, if I only knew.

I spent another good batch of time standing on the side of the road waiting for the moto support, who had to call in the Bike Barn support car with spare wheels. By the time they got there, replaced the front wheel, and had me rolling again, I had spent a total of just over 15 minutes standing roadside.

But that wasn’t going to knock the smile off my face.

With my new training wheel on, I was ready for the headwinds to start; I just got back on task, and kept rolling. I started catching guys who had passed me earlier, and started making up a lot of ground. I was within 8 minutes of my initial group by the special needs station, and was closing in on O’Meara and Toth. By the bottom of the Yellow Lake climb I could see O’Meara, and thought “hell YES! I’m kinda-sorta back in this thing!” Knowing O’Meara was in the top 8 or so, I could still ride and run my way into a good spot. Things were looking up.

Then, suddenly, things started to look way down.

As I stood to get some steam at the base of the climb, I heard the horrific sound of a cyclists worst nightmare: chain-suck. For those that don’t know, it’s when the chain grabs the bottom of the chainring on the crank, and sucks it up past the chain-stay. In the case of my Teschner, past the chain-stay AND the rear aero brake, bending the chain, and locking it up there like a barbed hook in a fishes mouth.

I stood on the side of the road, staring in disbelief that this was happening. It was almost at the comical point now; barring a crash, this WAS the worst thing that could happen. A random series of events beyond my control, that had me standing roadside. Sitting there watching the inevitable train of pro athletes fly by was rather frustrating. Eventually the Bike Barn support vehicle showed up, along with Kelly Hall (the pro athlete coordinator,) and they came up with a solution: they were going to put some parts from my bike onto a Cervelo S2 road bike they had with them (that was a few sizes too big,) so I had some wheels to get home. They assured me it climbed well, and descended like a champ.

God bless those Bike Barn guys, I’m pretty sure I used a good portion of the parts they brought along, and took more of their time on course than everyone else combined.

After another good 20 minutes roadside, I was off. I had made the decision to pull out of the race at that point (with some help and prompting from the Bike Barn guys, who know what it takes to race as a professional,) losing 35 minutes on the bike and standing around doesn’t make for a good day on the run course. Top 10 so far beyond my reach (granted, if I had been able to muster a solid 2:40 marathon I think I may have been able to get there,) I knew that recovering and racing in another iron distance race sometime soon was my best bet. So, I just did what I do best: put my big smile back on and started to ride hard. Climbing Yellow Lake strong, I battled headwinds on my ill-fitting new steed (which, btw, rode and shifted fantastic,) the last 40km of the bike course. Sore in places I wouldn’t normally be sore, I rode through town, cheering on the athletes already out on the run course, and waving to people who were giving me and my ITU antics a funny look and cheer.

I had no intention of running. At all. But as I went through T2, so many friends were volunteering, congratulating me on my race thus far and ushering me through. I pretty much handed off my bike, and the next thing I knew someone was putting my shoes on, turning on my run watch, and giving me the boot out the other side. I’m a loyal person, with a  lot of respect for those that support me and for those that race the iron distance events. DNF has never been in my vocabulary, always seen as a cowardly act of disrespect and weakness. All of a sudden, I just couldn’t bear myself to stop, what with all this support from friends. I couldn’t let these people see me just walk off, just pull the pin and call it a day.

So I just said “f#ck it, let’s go for a run.”

Why not?!? Took me a while to answer that question.

I went out on course, and was cruising effortlessly. Hitting the 5km mark around 20mins, I knew I had a good marathon in me. But then I started to get in my head, and start to ponder the hard decisions that needed to be made.

Lining up a solid high 5
Kelly Hall, our pro liaison, giving a solid high 5

“Why am I still running?”
“There’s no chance of running in to top 10, why keep going and destroy your legs, leaving you useless for racing at least a month?”

I made it to the 7km mark, and made the call. It was a tough one, easily the toughest decision I’ve had to make in this sport. But it was a decision that needed making. Racing as a pro, you need to know when to hold’em, and know when to fold’em. Today the race was calling my bluff. Everything went wrong on the bike, and anyone who’s stood around for that period of time while racing knows your legs and body aren’t the same after. My nutrition didn’t account for all the waiting, and my body was NOT accustomed to riding an ill-fitting bike as hard as I could for 40km. I was still feeling strong, and knew that if I wanted another chance to race to my full potential this year, I needed to pack it in. An extremely strong swim and 180km bike (my power up until the Yellow Lake catastrophe was higher than I was riding half-iron distances last year,) coupled with a brief run was a solid training day and confidence builder. Doing the full marathon would dig me into a pit that would hinder me for the next month or two.

I almost immediately regretted stopping, feeling disrespectful to the race and all those warriors who would be out there until midnight, battling away at the distance to be part of the Challenge Family. I wanted to be a part of the Challenge Family so bad, especially after the welcoming and friendly atmosphere that they imparted on their race. Back at the finish, after chatting with a few people for whom I have a lot of respect, I realized I made the right decision. Olly Piggin and coach Björn told me with incredible certainty I did what needed to be done, and coming from them I started to feel all right. This race was my Superbowl, my Kona, the thing I’ve been focused on during those long hard indoor winter trainer rides, when I’m securely in the pain cave. Having reinforcement from people I trust and admire that I did the right thing just puts the smile back on my face.

I can say with honesty that even though I didn’t finish this year, I had more fun at the event than I did last year. Challenge Family has put on an absolutely incredible community-oriented event, with a large focus on a friendly family and all-inclusive atmosphere. I will become part of the Challenge Family, whether I’m forced to wait until Challenge Penticton next year, or I can somehow make it to another Challenge Family race this year. I’m completely sold on the Challenge races, it shadows last year’s Ironman Canada and it will continue to grow and flourish like Roth has over the past 12 years (growing from 200 athletes in 2001 to 5600 athletes in 2013!)

The moral of the story? Shit Happens. All you can do is keep smiling and move on to the next challenge. Use the experience as a character builder and chock it up to experience. This is the first big catastrophe I’ve had on the bike in 6 years of racing, and over my career it certainly won’t be the last. There is obviously a reason I wasn’t supposed to finish the race, so it’s on to the next adventure. I’m still breathing at the end of the day, and to me that’s always a win.

So what’s next for me? Well, I’ll be enjoying an amazing banquet tonight to celebrate all the accomplishments of the athletes that completed the race and achieved their goals and dreams. I’ll use this as motivation for my next iron adventure, which will be coming sometime soon. I’ll also be sharing my big smile, the same one that never left my face the entire race, no matter how dismal things looked.

Congratulations to all those athletes that raced in Challenge Penticton, Ironman Canada, and Ironman Louisville; whether you achieved your goals and dreams, or just stuck it through and suffered to the end, you are all champions. Special mention to absolute rock star Jeff Symonds of Penticton, who smashed the Challenge Penticton race from start to finish, winning the inaugural race in front of his home town crowd, in typical ‘Gettin Ugly’ fashion. Also, big thanks to the Bike Barn for keeping me rolling all day, they did everything they possibly could!

Happy training and racing everyone, be safe out there!

Nathan

The poor little fella has no idea what’s coming….

8 thoughts on “Challenge Penticton: a Tough Decision that Ends with a Smile”

  1. Awesome blog Nathan. Thanks for sharing! I know how hard DNF is (not as a pro) but I think it still sucks the same. I alwasy joked that I DNF’d 2x a St George. BUT, now, over a year later, I wouldn’t trade it. I hope it turns around to be like that for you too!!

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