It’s been 2 years since my last Ironman. In 2004 I had a stress fracture in my femur that put me out most of the year. Then that same year I crashed on a descent on my bike and broke my ribs in addition to some bad road rash. 2005 looked like it was going to be my year back in the game. I started early and competed in the Ralph’s Half Ironman in March. I finished in 2nd and was excited with my fitness and potential for the rest of the year. Soon after I was having some issues with my leg again, but it was workable, but then I kissed the pavement again and broke my hand and wrist. This put me out for another 8 weeks. I had to reevaluate what I wanted to do the rest of the year. Being that racing was my full time job it was discouraging that I was unable to compete to try and make a living. So I chose to return to my career as a mortgage broker and kept training and racing as much as I could. Returning to work has helped me balance the time and focus I put into triathlon. I still focus on training, but without the endless thinking about the next race or the next training day. It allows me to be a little more relaxed in my preparation for a race.
I was always told how great Ironman Canada was. The race organization is very impressive with the volunteers and the community behind the event. Everybody that I talked to told me that the race course was built for me. That it would suit my strengths and that the bike course is challenging and with my strength I could have a good ride. I always wanted to go to Canada and give the race a try, but it never fit into my schedule. This year with the set backs I had no other choice, but to compete in Ironman Canada if I wanted to try and qualify for the World Championship in Kona Hawaii. So in a weird way it was a blessing that I had the set backs because it forced me to finally race a race I always wanted to race, but avoided due to timing. So there I was heading to Ironman Canada excited, but relaxed at the same time. Looking to do the best I could and feeling like I should be able to qualify. Winning was on my mind of course, but not my top priority.
What a great place Canada is. Not only is it beautiful, but so are the people. I had the privilege to stay with a family in Summerland just outside of Penticton. They opened their home to me and welcomed me as if I was part of the family. It was nice to get the contrast of what I see everyday in the hustle and bustle of the San Francisco Bay area. There is so much drive for success financially and keeping up with the Jones’. Being in Canada you see a little more of how life should be. Living life to the fullest with an emphasis on family. Spending time with your family doing activities and just sitting around the table and talking more. I find that we get too distracted and keep ourselves busy that we miss out on relationships with friends and family. Something I am learning everyday – BALANCE.
The week leading up to the race I was relaxed spending time with my host family and swimming and training in Summerland instead of in the middle of Ironman village with all the other athletes. I was able to enjoy the time and was not forced to focus everyday on the race.
Then before I knew it, it was race day. I got down to the transition area early and was able to meet up with my coach Lance Watson. He helped get the last minute things together before the race started. After a little encouragement and race strategy talk I was suited up in my Ironman wetsuit and ready to go.
6:45am and we are off, first a 2.4 mile swim!! I started out feeling good and relaxed. I was swimming along side Eneko Llanos and Simon Lessing feeling like I would be able to swim with them throughout the swim. After about 8 to 10 minutes swimming with them I realized I was struggling a little. After breaking my hand and only being back in the water training for 6 weeks. My swim fitness started to show itself or lack there of. I fell off the pace and lost that select group of elite swimmers. About half way through the swim I stopped for a second to clear my goggles and found myself all alone in the middle of the lake. It was beautiful and calm. I would have loved to stop and just enjoy the calm glassy water and the warmth of the morning sun, but I had a race to continue. I had to mentally stay focused and not let the fact that I was not having my usual swim affect me to much. I put my head down and kept going, by myself and all alone, with no one to follow or enjoy a draft off of. I made the final turn in the swim heading to the beach. I knew I lost a good amount of time, but to my surprise it was more than I expected. I was now over 5 minutes behind the leaders at the start of 112mile bike ride.
I was glad I was out of the water and onto my favorite part and most comfortable part of the race. I made sure I got some early calories in and some fluids and started to focus on playing catch up. I caught a small group fairly quickly, but there were a few out there that I was concerned about. Simon Lessing the race favorite was still over 5 minutes ahead of me according to people on the side of the rode. It was mile 25 and I worked my way to 2nd place but still behind Lessing. He was pushing hard and making it difficult for me to catch him. About mile 35 or so I hit Richter Pass which is about a 6 mile climb. I started the climb feeling good and light on my feet, as if it was pulling me up the hill. I reached the top, made sure I got enough fluids and calories in, and started the fast descent. I had to pedal through the whole down hill because of the slight wind in my face. I thought it was going to be a place to relax a little and regroup, but instead it turned out to be an area that I had to keep pushing the gears. A few miles later I could see in the distance a line of cars and what looked to be the lead vehicle. I assumed that was Lessing, which meant I was gaining on him. I stayed focused and couldn’t wait till I got to the special needs bags (These are bags that each athlete can put items they want to receive on the bike to refill on nutrition and drinks) At this race that spot was around mile 75. It must have been between mile 65 and 70 when I finally caught Lessing. I was thinking how I would handle this moment. Would I just keep my pace and go by him, or would I slow and take a breather and study how he was feeling and riding. I chose to sit back and watch for a few miles and wait until after I got my special needs bag before I would make my move. I grabbed my bag which had my Powerbar gels and my drinks and started to refill. Once I felt comfortable I made my move returning to my rhythm and my pace. I worked my way to the front and kept pushing. We reached the last big climb of the day Yellow Lake. To my surprise Lessing worked his way back and was with me again up the climb. We exchanged the lead many times and once we reached the top I felt re energized and I pulled away from him and was continually separating myself. I then worked my way through the rolling hills at the top of the climb and down the descent. I hit the first big descent and I really enjoyed it hitting speeds above 54 mph. My Trek Time Trial bike was holding steady and made for a great ride. Some more rollers then another descent, but this time it was a little windy and gusty. The bike still handled great. My heart rate went up a little as I was getting blown around. I made a left turn and I could see the lake and the town of Penticton on the horizon. I knew I was getting close. Lucky for all of us we were blessed with a tail wind the last 10 miles home. At this point I was getting ready to get off my bike and start the Marathon. I knew now was the time to try and get in as much fluid and gels before I got off the bike. I finished the bike in 4 hours and 25 minutes. I knew it was a fast ride, but it wasn’t until later that I was told that I broke a 9 year old record set by Thomas Hellriegel.
After taking what some would say forever in the bike to run transition (I had to take care of some business) I was off on my run. My legs didn’t feel that great, but it felt good to run. The first few miles I was running well and feeling ok. I ran through town and up a hill to get out of town. After a while I knew that Lessing was reeling me in. At around mile 5 Lessing caught me and put about 30 seconds on me. I found myself in 2nd place and ok with that. My goal was to qualify and in 2nd I would do that. I was asking myself how much do I want to suffer today. For me at mile 6, I was comfortable with second and just wanted to hang on. Lessing put a little more time on me, but as the marathon was going on I was getting split times that he was still staying no more than a minute and a half ahead of me, and at times just 45 seconds. I tried to stay in my rhythm, but it was difficult because of the very strong head wind we were running into, and the big hills on the run about half way. The turn around to head home was coming up soon and I couldn’t wait to get a little tail wind home. Then it dawned on me that with a tail wind it would seem even hotter. With the wind at your back you feel nothing but the blazing sun and heat, which was reported to be over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Running back through the hills I found that I was catching Lessing instead of just holding the distance. I came up on him around mile 15 or 16 and ran past him trying to hold my form and rhythm so he wouldn’t see that I was having as hard of a time as he possibly was. I picked my rhythm up a little and kept going, never looking back to see where he was. A bout a mile later I had to ask someone if he was behind me and how far. I was told “No where in sight” It was a relief, but I was still thinking about Stephan Vuckovic, 2000 Olympic Silver Triathlon Medalist, who was running strong and gaining ground. With about 5 miles to go he was 5 minutes back and running fast. At this point I was tired and my legs were yelling at me for that strong bike. I was running along then something inside me just said stop and regroup one last time. With the lead vehicle and media all around with less then 5 miles to go I suddenly stopped. I looked around, regrouped in my head, and said this is the last time you can stop until the finish. Then I suddenly started running again, mentally digging deep and telling myself don’t stop or he may catch you. I was coming into the finish area and could hear the crowd yelling. Literally 100 yards from the finish line I had to make a turn in the opposite direction to complete the last out and back section. I ran away from the finish line about a mile and made the final turn heading straight home. I saw Stephan running the other way, which meant I still had a 5 minute lead. That made me feel so much better, but it is not over until you cross the line. Legs pounding in pain and trying to balance the effort with not knowing if all of a sudden my body would shut down I was running closer and could see the Finish line. Almost there, I saw the blue carpet that stretched about 100 meters to the line. I told myself if you keep running to that spot you can start walking at the blue carpet. I hit that carpet line and started walking full of relief that I made it and absorbing all I could from the crowd. Thanking them for all their support and cheers. Without them I don’t know if I would have made those last few miles.
Unbelievable, I made it again after 2 years of set backs. Winning this time was so much more rewarding, because I didn’t have to put the crazy hours in training and thinking of nothing but racing. I got to enjoy the prep for this race more. Enjoying my family more, my 23 month old son Kaiden, and being distracted with my job. All of that made this more rewarding because I didn’t have to give up as much of my normal life to make it here. My balance is getting better, but still needs more work.
Thank you all for being a part of this victory and a part of my life. Thanks for your support and you encouragement.
The World Championships in Kona Hawaii, October 15th still to come. I will spend the next couple weeks recovering and a couple good weeks training for the big show. I will see you all there in person or in spirit.
Never stop fighting; it always pays off in the end if you give it your all.
a special thanks to photographer tim moxey/ digitaltriathlon.com for all photos.
Husband, Father, Professional Triathlete
Chris is a Two-time Ironman Champion and former U.S. National Ironman Champion. He recently won Ironman Canada and finished 18th at the World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. To learn more about Chris and his triathlon pursuits, please visit www.chrislieto.com.
Posted: September 9, 2005