By Karen Burns
Event Date: Sunday Sept 18, 2022
I signed up for this event at the end of 2019. My motivation for doing so has become fuzzy over time but I remember wanting to see if I COULD do it. I am not a mentally strong person and tend to have low self-confidence. If I managed to finish, it would be a “one and done”. Then COVID hit and, two years in a row, I hemmed and hawed about whether to defer or keep my registration alive.
For each of 2020 and 2021 Chris and I would train in the three disciplines until the race was cancelled after which we would switch back mainly to running. Then along came 2022 and things were looking good for in person racing again and I knew I would have to focus more on biking and swimming, where I am weak. To my surprise, I really enjoyed the training, even cycling the Gats. Chris was my constant training companion and, while I felt bad for him because he was training with someone at a lower level than himself, it was nice to have his company & support.
The Barrelman Niagara Falls 70.3 is a wonderful event. It is so well organized and the communication with athletes is amazing. It is unusual for a triathlon in that it is a point-to-point course with 2 separate transition zones. I had trouble wrapping my head around this at first, but it all comes together on race day. The swim start and location of T1 is at the Welland International Flatwater Centre. What can I say, it is a fantastic venue with a relatively sheltered swim in an old canal turned rowing basin. You can follow an underwater rope which holds the rowing lane marking buoys and you do not have to sight much at all. Great news for me whose somewhat dysfunctional left-sided Tyrannosaurus arm causes me to always veer left!
Given that it is a smaller body of water it stays warm. Two days before the event the water temperature was not wet suit legal but, thankfully, it was on race morning.
The bike course is flat consisting of a cycle out toward Lake Erie, back to Welland, then onward to Niagara Falls. There was, and usually is, a headwind going out to Erie but then a tailwind most of the rest of the way. I was surprised to encounter a headwind again going along the Niagara Parkway. There are two bottle drops/aid stations on the bike course. This year, the bike course was short by 3 km. We found this out a couple of days before the race. They could not get enough police officers (sick with COVID) to be at every intersection where they were needed so they had to modify it. There was supposed to be a small loop down by Lake Erie instead of 2 short out and backs. I was a bit disappointed at first but then realized it was close enough. It is an extremely well marshalled/policed bike course. It is open to traffic, but the roads are quiet and I had no issues.
This year’s course was a new course from past years and, from what I understand from veterans of this event, much better. For one thing there were no more stairs to climb, and it avoids an area where it was hard to maneuver around strolling tourists. The downside is you don’t see the falls anymore. We were told that Niagara Parks does not allow this anymore. It consists of two loops. It is a bit hilly but I enjoyed the course. It was quite warm by that point, but there were plenty of aid stations and they had ice which I shoved in my top. I was just so happy to be off the bike (and my aching butt) and was in high spirits. It turns out though, that the run course was a bit short. This was not planned, and it was only after many runners mentioned it to the race director that he did state 2 days later that it was only 20.5 km.
They did correct the bike and run distances in Sportstats to reflect what they actually were.
As I mentioned the point-to-point two separate transition zones worried me a little, but it was not an issue. You drop your bike off when you pick up your race kit at the Welland International Flatwater Centre the day before the race. At race kit pick up they give you three bags, one for each of T1, T2 and finish. They had forgotten to indicate which bag colour was for which in the athlete guide, but someone posted the pic below in the Barrelman Niagara Falls Group on Facebook.
If you do this race, this group has a lot of veterans of this race and the page is regularly monitored by the race director and moderator who are always available to answer questions and give advice, such as that below.
On race morning a shuttle takes you from Niagara Falls to the Welland International Flatwater Centre. You take your bags with you. When you get to Welland you put your T2 and Finish Bags in a bin to be transported there. You have what you need for the swim and the bike in your T1 bag. At the end of the swim, you have to put all of your swim stuff in the T1 bag, including your wetsuit, for it to be transported to the finish. They advised people not to leave bike pumps in T1 as anything not in the bag would not be transported. Turns out there were plenty of pumps to go around as Velofix was there and some people were dropped off by their families who took their pumps back with them. But we got to T1 early to make sure we could get our tires pumped up in time.
You get on your bike and cycle to T2 where your T2 bag is waiting at your numbered spot on the rack. You haven’t seen exactly where your bike is because you have not been to T2 before, but it was not a problem. Everything is well numbered as you are running in with your bike. You change into your run gear and off you go.
When you finish, your finish bag is waiting in the T2 area in a zone designated for those. You have to show your bib or bracelet to get back in and also to get out with your bike. Most people walked (some rode!) their bike the 2 km from the finish area to the parking lot. Honestly, with all the bags I found it hard to do this. It had also started to rain and I was cold (having discovered I still had ice in my top!) so we loaded our bikes onto the truck and took the shuttle back to the parking lot. One thing of note, there is no shuttle back to Welland at the end of the day.
There is post-race food including a delicious and large wrap (veggie or turkey option). There is a beer tent (pay), but we did not want to linger at that point in the rain.
Obviously, the total time in Sportstats it not for a full 70.3 given the short bike & run portions.
Until now I hadn’t extrapolated my bike & run times to see what my actual finish time would have been if they had been correct. I figured I still would have been under 7 hours which is more than I hoped for. But putting this in writing I feel obligated to be completely transparent. So here goes:
Average bike speed 27 kph over 87 km gives an approximate added by time of 6 min 40 sec for 3 more km.
Average run pace of 6:23 min/km gives an approximate added time of 3 min 50 sec for 0.6 more kms
So approximate time for actual 70.3: 6:29:08 + 00:6:40 + 00:3:50 = 6:39:38. Still happy!
Despite a few glitches with the course distance which are easy to fix (assuming no COVID staffing issues for the bike course) I would highly recommend this event, especially for a first race at this distance. It is so well organized and friendly. They are more than happy to answer questions, online and in person at the event.
You get a nice medal, a finisher T-shirt and a hat. If you took a water bottle at one of the bike aid stations, then you also have that.
I am happy with my training and my race. There are things I would do differently in training, such as specific bike skills and more bricks. There is not much I would do differently in the race, but I did learn a few lessons.
- Swim faster! I was a bit disappointed with my swim time. I know I can swim this distance in slightly under 50 min in choppier water, so I am not sure why it took me 53:37. The mat is very close to the swim exit, so it is not that. I was in the last wave (done by age groups) and did feel quite relaxed and calm during the swim and was actually enjoying it. I have to learn to get into a race mind set earlier, I guess. Or warm up; I never do a swim warm up.
- Get a bike fitting! When you are used to cycling longer distances in full bike shorts the tri shorts are literally a pain in the butt.
- These two are on to something!
As I mentioned, we were worried about getting our tires pumped up as we would not have our own bike pump in T1. We woke up around 5:00 a.m. and ate breakfast at the hotel. We were on the 6:00 a.m. shuttle and arrived in Welland before the sun rose.
My swim wave started at 9:00 a.m. about 4 hours after I had eaten breakfast except for half a Cliff Bar sometime before the swim. By the time I finished the swim I had a low-grade headache which got worse on the bike. I was feeling very hungry on the bike and ate my Cliff Bars earlier than I had planned to. I had taken a gel at the second aid station. I never take gels I am not familiar with but wanted it in case of a hunger emergency. I drank liberally. I did not end up using the gel. My headache gradually went away on the bike and was a non-issue for the run.
When we ride from home we have usually eaten not too long before and we take a PB&J sandwich and some Clif Bars. Hard to store a sandwich when you are not carrying your front bike pouch. I had not considered that it would be 4 hours between breakfast and the start of the race and next time I will have a second breakfast before the swim start!
- Never say never. I must go to confession now because I lied to people. Unintentionally, but still….
Never expected to enjoy the training so much. And Chris refused to do one without me.
What have I done?!!