Race Report: Great White North Half

Race Report: Great White North Half

This past weekend brought, barring some bout of spontaneity, my longest-distance and probably most competitive triathlon of the season. For a few years, I have heard tell of the Great White North Triathlon as a somewhat off-the-radar race to the north, impeccably organized with a generous prize purse, fast but accurate course, excellent post-race food, you know, all the things that make a race awesome. So this year, I decided to give it a whirl.

Since my travel buddy for the weekend ended up unable to race due to chronic injury issues, I made the trip alone. I left on Friday morning, and ten long hours later, I was pulling into the driveway of the house in Spruce Grove, Alberta where I would be spending the next couple nights. Spruce Grove is about 30 minutes west of downtown Edmonton, and about 10 minutes from the small town of Stony Plain, the site of the race. Since I was traveling solo and would definitely be in need of a good couple nights sleep after that much driving, I had decided to book a room through Airbnb, which worked out splendidly. My host, Monique, was very helpful, giving me advice on where to go eat, a good place to go for a run in the morning, and even cooking dinner. Her four cats were also very friendly. The housing situation made for a very relaxed couple days of race prep, which I was very thankful for.

I got some rest Friday night, opting out of the early race check-in and pasta feed, since I would have had to hurry over to Stony Plain in more of a rush than I preferred. Instead, I checked in on Saturday. Since packet pickup began at 11:00, I had plenty of time in the morning to get a run in and get all my assorted gear in order. By the time I had picked up my packet, dropped off my bike, checked out the swim course and transitions, I felt ready to go.

If you’ve been following my adventures this spring and summer, you know that I had a bit of a setback in May, forcing me to drop out of my first planned long course race of the season and lose several weeks of training, in addition to psychologically getting back into the mode of riding bikes fast. Sometimes, though, a setback like that is just what you need, and I am glad to be back to racing and training in full force. Going into the weekend, the only lingering injury from that accident was a bit of intermittent pain in my shoulder, which was pretty mild and would only show up occasionally. That said, I had gone for a total of one swim since the accident, and it was two weeks before this race, just to make sure that I could in fact swim without severe shoulder pain. I could feel it slightly that day, but by race day, it was barely noticeable.

The swim start. I am visible on the far right, in the blue-sleeved Orca Alpha wetsuit. Photo by Ken Anderson Photography.

The swim start took place on a wide beach and was an 800-person mass start. Mass starts with that many people can tend to be a bit crazy, so I tried to get out pretty quick so as not to get too caught up in the mass of wetsuit-clad humanity.

In the swim, I felt way better than I thought I would due to my complete lack of swim fitness. I got in a groove, starting out with a big group and gradually hopping from one pair of feet to the next, moving through the field and feeling confident. I still came out of the water several minutes back of the leaders, but considering the circumstances I was okay with it. Official swim time: 29:02.

In my first transition, I realized that it has been a little while since I did an open water triathlon. I got to the wetsuit strippers and still did not have my sleeves off, so I spent some time fumbling with that, then proceeded to drop my goggles and swim cap out of the sleeve when I ran off, which a volunteer kindly picked up for me. All in all, if T1 is the most disappointing part of the race, I think that is okay. Official T1 time: 1:15.

As soon as I got out of T1 and hopped aboard my Orbea Ordu TT bike (read my review of the bike here), I felt at home. I began moving my way through the field comfortably, and enjoyed the small rolling hills. The two-lap course took us north on the highway over what amounted to a net climb, then descent to the turnaround. We then repeated in reverse on the way back, totaling four climbs, none of which were too substantial.

On lap two, I got to a point where I stopped passing people, and was engaging in a little back-and-forth with a couple other racers. This kept me focused, but I did start to notice that late in the descents, the extra weight on my arms caused my shoulder to flare up a bit, right where it had been hurt from my accident. In the last five or six miles, it started to get much more painful, and I had to sit up and shake it out a few times. After each short shake-out session, I put my head down and did my best to focus and keep putting out as much power as I could, and I ended up holding it together pretty well, riding my second lap about a minute faster than my first. I believe I came off the bike in 14th place. Official bike time: 2:23:09.

Out on the bike course, en route to a solid bike split while sporting scars on my knee and back from my crash back in May. Photo by Ken Anderson Photography.

T2 went much better than T1. I smoothly got off the bike and moved through transition relatively seamlessly, trying my best to keep my focus and psychological momentum going. I got edged out for the fastest transition time in the field by the eventual women’s champion, but I did put together a solid second place in that ever-important competition, 1.9 seconds back. Official T2 time: 57 seconds.

This only being my second triathlon of the year, and not having done any brick workouts, I felt a little rough around the edges in the first half mile or so of the run. Fortunately though, after that my legs started to sort themselves out. I have been doing much more running than anything this season, so I knew if I was going to do well that was my ace in the hole. I just made a point of holding a pace I knew would get me a time somewhere in the 1:26 range, which was manageable. I figured if I felt better, I could pick it up on the second lap, but I really wanted to avoid imploding at 5k and having to suffer through 10 miles.

Early on in the run, getting my stride back. Photo by Ken Anderson Photography.

Well, when I got to the second lap and thought about trying to find that next gear, it wasn’t really there. I was able to hold the pace I had done for the first lap, and the encouraging part was that I was still moving up in the field. It was clear that I would not move up far enough to crack the top 5, but I made it a point to pick off as many people as I could, and to hold off a couple guys who appeared to be bearing down on me from behind.

With about 1k to go, I glanced back on a corner to see Devin Wittig, a pro who had had some trouble on the bike and was on a mission to gain as much back as he could on the run. I had no clue what place I was in, and I was hoping to be able to coast through the finish, but when it comes down to that close of a race, one has to do one’s best to hold off any attacks. I kicked it into gear, used the momentum from a slight downhill to propel me to the finish, and managed to hold my spot through the line. Official run time: 1:26:53

My overall finish was 4:21:17, good enough for 8th place and a long course PR.

Next up is the one race every year in which I participate without racing. I will be leading the 3:20 pace group at the Missoula Marathon on Sunday, which is always a fun and rewarding venture. From there, it’s on to my homecoming race, the Tiger Triathlon next weekend!

I hope everyone’s having a great summer. See you out there on the roads, trails, and maybe even assorted bodies of water if I get ambitious later this summer!