Matt Watson’s Ironman Mont-Tremblant Race Report
Fair warning, I had 12 hours on the drive home to collect my thoughts so this is a long, long, long report. I’m up to 9 pages. I put the acknowledgements up front. Hopefully you will get a least that far.
First off I have to thank my wife and my family. Triathlon may be an individual discipline but it takes a team effort to get to the starting line. Julie, Mom, Dad, Heather, Jennifer, Nate and Graham ”“ I could not imagine this without having you to share it with. This wasn’t just my race, it was ours.
Secondly, I have to thank the Team Z coaches. As I said, this is a team effort and having you there to guide me and support me made all the difference. Ryan, Ed, and Alexis – thank you for your guidance and patience answering my un-ending questions. Alyssa, Scott, Amy, and Jessica ”“ thank you for teaching me how to swim and then how to fly.
Finally, I have to thank my teammates. Your dedication, drive, humor, and passion for this sport is both inspiring and humbling. This really is the greatest Triathlon team in the world because of you. I’m not going to name names for fear of forgetting someone but you know who you are and what you mean to me.
Onto the Report!!!
IMMT was a huge success! My race strategy was to stay in Z2 all day long and finish strong. I accomplished both goals. Mont-Tremblant was a great venue and the crowds were loud the whole race. Team Z was even better.
I owe a huge debt of thanks to all those who volunteered on a cheer squad. Every time I went by, your encouragement and energy made me feel like a champion. For my teammates whose family became cheerleaders please thank them for me. Again and again I saw their green Z t-shirts and heard their cheers. You were there exactly when we needed you, inspiring us to achieve and finish. I owe each of you a very big hug.
Long, Long, Long Version
As part of gearing up for IMMT I went and got my first VO2 Max test. This was one of the biggest factors in my successful race day. With my new heart rate numbers I was able to religiously follow the heart rate zones throughout training. Instead of guessing at paces or perceived effort I followed the data. Numbers don’t lie. I was originally tested in April and I went back the week before IMMT to dial in my numbers and measure my improvement. Over those four months I was able to knock 60 seconds off my Z2 run pace. To put it in perspective that’s 30 minutes off a marathon. I’m officially a believer in HR training. The real benefit showed itself on race day. I passed 100 people on the run because I still had gas in the tank. I was able to enjoy the day and feel good at the end of the race.
I had a really good season leading up to IMMT. Throughout training my body responded positively to the increase in workload. I was losing weight, I had lots of energy, I was sleeping better, and I all around felt good. The 110 ride at Culpeper was a huge challenge but even then I was able to get it done following my Z2 plan. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Euge, Katie W, Katie H., and Val for being my bike posse. Having you guys to ride with kept me going on those long days. I owe part of IMMT to you guys.
The 20/127 (yes I did all 127) weekend went really well. I was actually worried that I was peaking too early. Yes I wanted to get off the bike but I still had some energy. Through the first week of taper I still felt good but things caught up with me at the 50 miler in Marshall. I couldn’t keep a steady cadence going and my brain was sending all sorts of miserable messages. I gutted it out but man was that a tough ride. Throughout the next week I found myself unable to sleep, grouchy, and just plain restless. Of course this is what everyone warns about but until you feel it you don’t really understand. I felt a little better after the 30 miler wind down on the bike when I got to talk shop with John and Becky.
The last Tuesday night swim before leaving helped me feel better as well. I got to wear my wetsuit and burn off some nervous energy. All season long I’ve been working hard in the pool with Edwin, John, Matt, and Chris. My swimming has come really, really far and honestly right now it’s my best discipline. All our hard work paid off.
Julie and I left DC on Wednesday night and headed north. I was definitely ready to get on the road. No more packing, no more waiting, let’s go. We made it to Watertown, NY, about 30 miles south of the border, for the night. Thursday we headed into Montreal proper for lunch. Neither of us had ever been so we wanted to at least get an impression of the city. Fast forward three hours and we were back on the road. We checked into our condo and got settled. The good news is we had a nice space about a ten minute walk from transition that worked out great. The bad news is it was up two steep hills that I really shouldn’t have been walking. I’m lucky I didn’t pull a calf muscle. We were joined by my parents, my older sister, her husband, my 13 month old nephew, and my younger sister. I know having them there for support was a key to my race. They made sure I rested, kept track of all the logistics, fed me, and gave me space when I needed it. Having them out on the course waiting to see me and cheer for a brief moment is the best goal I can ask for.
Friday morning we went down to the expo and registration. I misread the start of registration and got in line at 9:40am instead of 10am when it opened. I’m glad I got there early as the line quickly went out the door and down the block. Check in went fine and I saw a few Zers. I love that every time I turned around I saw another group of teammates. We really did take over Tremblant. Once I got my packet, John and I hopped into Edwin’s car to drive the bike course. My overall impression was “Holy crap some of those hills are long and steep but it doesn’t look like anything we haven’t done in training”. After that it was back to the condo to rest. A nap and a few games with the family helped keep me centered.
First thing Saturday was the team brick. I was a little thrown by the logistics beforehand. It seemed like a lot of work to lug all my gear down to Cheer 1 for less than 60 minutes of working out. Thankfully I got some encouragement from Joel and Edwin and I got my gear together. I planned ahead at home and had alternate workout gear other than what I was racing in which worked out because everything got soaked in the rain. In hindsight I’m really glad I worked out with the team. Seeing everyone together jump started my excitement and got me pumped up. After the brick it was back to the condo to pull together my race bags and then back down the hill to check everything in. Saturday night the whole Watson clan headed to the Team Z dinner. Again it was great seeing everyone together. Friends don’t let friends carbo load alone. After dinner it was back to the condo and to bed. I was in bed/lights out by 8pm. I even managed to get about 6 hours of sleep.
Race day started at 4am. Oatmeal, OJ, and lots of layers of clothes. Julie and I walked down to transition and I put my nutrition on the bike. I always find race mornings exciting. It’s dark, it’s quiet, and everyone has a sense of purpose. We walked over to Cheer 1 before Julie figured out I skipped body marking. Back over to get body marked and then back to Cheer 1. Wait, picture time, back over to the square for the team photo. Back to Cheer 1, this time to stay. I chatted with Jen Gibbons, Val and Jimmy a little bit before getting into my wetsuit. Bodyglide? Check. Two swim caps? Check. Googles, let’s go with the blue tint. By that time my family had come down and they wished me good luck and told me how proud they were. Then we all headed over to the start.
After navigating the huge crowd of spectators, Edwin, Scott, and I made it down to the beach. My wave wasn’t starting for 15 minutes so I went in to warm up. Edwin and Scott were starting before me so we said good luck and wished each other well. I got in a quick 100 yards. My arms felt good and while the water was cold I knew I would be okay once we started. I ran into Andrew in the water and we wished each other good luck. Back on the beach I ran into Matt K. and we waited together for the start.
The horn sounded and per the plan, I didn’t move a muscle. I was not about to start my day in the washing machine that erupted in front of me. I waited a few seconds, waded into the water, counted to ten, and then started my swim. Long slow strokes. My warmup had done the trick and I felt good. I didn’t sight well off the beach so I ended up inside the first four buoys. I was drifting to my right with each stroke so I had to compensate for that. Eventually I got lined up on the outside with a straight shot to the turn buoy. Around buoy 6 or 7 (there were 13 on a side) I started catching the slower swimmers from the wave ahead of me. Instead of concentrating on my form I was concentrating on not running into anyone. To compound the chaos this was the same time the strong swimmers from the wave behind me caught up. Those guys didn’t care who they ran over and it was carnage. I distinctly remember the phrase “spread all over hell’s half acre” popped into my head. I kept pulling and made the first turn buoy without incident. At the half way buoy I checked my watch and saw 38 minutes had elapsed, right where I was supposed to be. I hit the second red buoy and made a clean turn. It was then that things went sideways. The #3 buoy and the #4 buoy were switched. It went #1, #2, and then #4. My rational mind saw this and no big deal. The next buoy was indeed #3, I hadn’t lost count. Then from nowhere came the idea that they were counting down and I was only two buoys from the end. Of course this was crap (there were 13 on the second side too). When I realized where I was my mind took a left turn into darkness. The thought of dropping out and giving up reared its ugly head. It didn’t matter that I was feeling fine physically and was right on pace. I was having a really good swim and my mind was waving the white flag. I’ve never had that happen before. I once ran the last 17 miles of the Chicago marathon with both quads cramping every half mile and never thought of stopping. Yet here I was less than an hour into the race having serious self-doubts. I’d like to say I manned up and made a conscious decision that I was going to finish but honestly I can’t remember. I just kept swimming. The next thing I really remember was seeing the sunken shapes on the bottom of the lake and surfing the waves to the beach. I felt like a dolphin the last 150 yards because every time I pulled I sprang forward with the current. I scraped my hand on the bottom, stood up and like that, I was through the swim. Dark thoughts banished; 1 down, 2 to go.
I hauled myself out of the water and started up the ramp. I knew there were going to be wetsuit strippers but I had no idea they would be right at the lake. For some reason I assumed they would be in the tent. I found a spot and boom! I was peeled like a banana. Then up onto my feet for the jog back to transition. Spectators lined the chute all the way to transition and they were all in full roar. The crowds were amazing all day long. Despite the cheering, running barefoot for ¼ mile of blacktop was not on my to-do list. And it felt really weird to be running down the street in my jammers. Frankly, this whole section sucked. The only relief was stopping for a bathroom break on the way. At that point I didn’t care that I was barefoot.
I ducked into the huge transition tent and grabbed my bag. I figured free chairs would be available toward the far end of the changing area and I was right. I had two chairs to myself and went through my mental checklist. I got all my gear on, remembered to turn on my Garmin, and started for the bike. So far, so good.
One consequence of my swim and my Z2 race plan is that in the beginning of the bike I get passed by other riders. Lots and lots of other riders. The uphill climbs started almost immediately out of the parking lot and I dropped into my easy gears and started spinning. I wasn’t going to blow my heart rate 60 seconds into the bike. It was hard to spin while hundreds of people are yelling at you to “GO” but I settled in for the long haul and watched my heart rate. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the longer transition meant I was able to start in Z2 as opposed to being in Z3/Z4 and having to bring it back down. My plan was to follow my heart rate no matter what happened. The Team Z cheer station on the way was a great site. Every time I went through a cheer station the noise and energy was like an adrenaline shot. You guys should be proud of yourselves! I sincerely appreciate everything you did out on the course to make our day amazing. I had more than one racer tell me how impressed they were with our support team.
The section out to route 117 flew by and we were out on the highway. Knowing what to expect from the drive meant no surprises. At this point I started getting passed by Zers and the words of encouragement boosted my energy. It’s always great to see a teammate out on the course. I was spot on with my nutrition plan, waffle 10 minutes into the bike and then getting a GU and a salt tab in every hour. My legs were feeling good and thanks to our training plans I was comfortable on the hills. I spun up the uphill sections watching my heart rate and then I bombed down the descents getting as aero as possible on my road bike. I hit the turn-around in Labelle and with another bathroom break (this is going to become a theme) I started back to town. My internal goal was an 8 hour bike and I was right on pace. All that climbing outbound turned into some serious descending and I felt really positive. Passing people at 35 mph will do that.
After getting back from Labelle it was down in St-Jovite. The streets were lined with locals all shouting encouragement in French. Or they were yelling “GO, GO, GO” over and over. The community as a whole really embraced the race and there were locals cheering everywhere. I admit I feel bad about this but after a while I started to resent the “GO, GO, GO”. It felt more like “go faster you slowpoke” than “continue your forward progress”. That’s on me though, the spectators were great.
On the main drag I saw the Team Z cheer station on the other side of the road and knew the turn-around was close. At this point in the race I was feeling really fresh so I yelled and screamed to the cheer station as much as they screamed at me. It was like the finish of Tour De France stage. Alexis started sprinting next to me and it was glorious. He pulled up and when I looked down at my heart rate was up into Z5. It was worth it.
The next section is kind of a blur in my memory which makes me guess it went fine. I turned into the resort and looked for my family. I was a little ahead of schedule at that point and I missed them. That bummed me out a little bit but the reason was a good one. Everyone talked about the section out Chemin Duplessis and it lived up to the hype. It was nothing but steep hill after steep hill after steep hill. My Garmin said 10%-14% again and again. I kept thinking about the Thursday night hill group at Hunter Station and how we file up and down that hill like ants. I’m really thankful I had that experience to rely on. I made it to the turn around and once again it was time to bomb down the descents back into town. This time I saw Julie and my Dad coming into town. My mom and sisters were just down from them. I’m sure I was a blur to them but they were a lifetime for me.
I was really looking forward to getting to the bike special needs bag. I’ve never done a race with special needs and the new wrinkle really excited me. I was in relatively light traffic by that point I and was able to pull into my section without any trouble. I grabbed my GUs, my replacement Gatorade, my PB&J Uncrustable, my 8 oz. Pepsi, my pizza goldfish, and my first set of inspiration notes. I tore open the PB&J and wolfed it down. I also hit my fourth port-o-john of the day. Did I mention this would be a theme? I also guzzled the 8oz Pepsi in about 10 seconds flat.
Back onto the bike. Heading back out I still felt fine physically but the excitement of the first loop was definitely gone. At this point I was pretty much alone on the course. I would get passed occasionally but mostly it was just spin and then descend. The outbound to Labelle on 117 went well and I was able to wrestle my heart rate into Z2 for the most part. I ran into Aileen at the turnaround, wished her good luck, and then it was back up the hill and another pit stop. At this point I had run out of Gatorade and I had to switch to Perform. Perform tastes like lemon pledge; I should have carried more Gatorade.
The St-Jovite cheer station was once again an oasis of energy. This time when Alexis started sprinting he yelled at me to go faster. My response was “Z2 Holmes”. No heart rate spike this time. Somewhere between St-Jovite and getting back into town I started pacing with Zer Elizabeth Hurley. We’d met before but nothing makes friends quicker than conversation at mile 90 on the bike. I would pass her on the descents and she would pass me on the hills. Just before getting back into town the heavens decided they’d had enough and the downpour started. Thankfully it only lasted a few minutes but we were soaked. My shoes were soggy and my glasses were spotted but I was no worse for the wear. Elizabeth and I navigated through town and headed back up Chemin Duplessis. We spun up the hills together, marking off the miles. Ryan was right, that second time was miserable. I still felt okay physically (I had small aches and pains but no major issues) but mentally I was ready to get off the bike. Thankfully Elizabeth was there to share the insanity with me. At the turn around I knew I would descend faster than Elizabeth so I said good luck and set off following Dexter who had caught us somewhere during the climbs. This is where things got a little hairy (pun very much intended). At mile 108 I looked up to see a medium size black bear come out of the woods about 50 yards in front of me. He stopped and looked directly at me and I hit the brakes. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that if he decided I was a problem I was toast but thankfully he scurried across the road. He did turn to look at me one more time though.
Off the bike at the dismount line, cleats clacking into the tent. I get to the 1700s section but my bag isn’t there. There’s a flurry of chatter in French and my bag appears from another section where the gear bags are all tied together. Not sure what happened but crisis averted. It felt great to sit in a chair and not on the bike. I changed clothes and grabbed replacement GUs, a waffle, and the second set of inspiration notes. I was careful to keep the first set from off the bike before coming in. Hat on, let’s go.
At this point I knew the only thing stopping me was an injury. I didn’t have to worry about a flat or a chain break and that was a huge weight off my shoulders. I saw my family right out of the gate and I stopped to take a breather. It was nice to slow down and actually talk to them instead of waving and yelling.
Happy to be off the bike and energized by my family the first few miles of the run went by in a flash. My heart rate was in Z2 and my pace was exactly like my training runs. I had hit all my nutrition on the bike so I was well fueled. The out and back meant I got to see all the Zers ahead of me and cheer them on. The hills stretched my legs a little bit but I was slow and steady all the way out to the turn around. I got to chat a little bit with Jen Gibbons and I got a high five from Jimmy and Edwin. I saw plenty of Z cheerers as well. I saw Alyssa on a downhill and bragged about my swim to her. I had been told to go for the chicken broth when it was available so I grabbed my first cupful. The smell made me a little queasy but it tasted okay. I was sick of perform, but I had forgotten my salt tabs in T2 so I knew I needed to keep drinking it. I was eating banana chunks as well hoping to stave off any cramping. You haven’t truly lived unless you’ve chased a banana with warm chicken broth.
I heard the Team Z cheer station a mile before I actually got there. Those green horns were echoing up and down the trail. I don’t have the words to describe the joy I felt when I reached that station. I just don’t. I said it before but the Team Z cheer crew is amazing. Their energy and joy makes you feel so energized and proud to be part of the team.
The rest of the first loop is kind of a blur. I started pacing a guy from Toronto named Peter and we talked race experiences for a few miles. It was his first Ironman too and his daughter and granddaughter were waiting for him. I was still feeling decent physically and I was still firmly in Z2. My only worry was my ankles were starting to ache but it wasn’t a sharp pain. The uphill sections back into the resort were really trying but Peter and I kept on chugging. At this point I started seeing more Zers coming onto the run and I was relieved to find out everyone made it off the bike. Seeing Sarah, Katie H., Katie W., Euge, and Val helped keep me moving. Also, I knew special needs bags were up ahead and I focused on that. To my surprise Julie was waiting for me at on the hill across from Cheer 1. I stopped to give her a quick kiss and she told me the rest of the family was waiting in the village. I hustled up the hill to get my goodies. My bag contained socks, replacement GUs, more pizza goldfish, another Uncrustable, and a snickers bar. Figures that the only thing I used was the GUs.
Once out of special needs the finish was right around the corner. The course turned onto the main street of Tremblant and the crowds here were deafening. I found my family and stopped to catch my breath. They seemed to be holding up well considering they had been on the go for as long I had. I told them I would be back and started again. You could hear Mike Reilly announcing at the bottom of the hill but we unlucky first timers had to turn back to the course. I was still holding Z2 and moving well. I wasn’t going fast but I wasn’t walking either. The whole of the marathon I walked the water stops and two of the big hills. I consider that quite an accomplishment.
I saw Alyssa and Scott again on the way out. They both had more words of encouragement. It was dark by this point and the IM crew had fired up the mobile light stations along the course. It was mile after mile of running through the dark into blinding sodium light and then back into darkness. I concentrated on keeping in Z2 and keeping fueled. They had Red Bull on the course but not having tried it during training I wasn’t about to try it then. Occasionally they had coke which I did drink since that was part of my plan. Once again I heard the Team Z cheer zone well before I got there and even at that late hour they were amazing.
I kept chugging up to the turnaround. Intellectually I knew that I had reached the point where I could walk the rest of the way and make it home before cutoff but I pushed that out of my mind. I trained to race and race is what I was going to do. I kept pushing my Z2 pace. It was a short burst back to the Cheer Station. I got a high five from both Ryan and Alexis. Ed grabbed me on the shoulder, shouted that I was going to be and ironman and slapped me on the butt hard enough to leave a mark.
A lot of the articles about Ironman races talk about “the wall” at mile 18 on the run. I’m very happy to say I never found it. I stayed in my Z2 zone and made my way home. I was watching the clock and saw I was going to pass 10pm but at that point I didn’t care that much. Those last few miles in the dark turned over slowly but I was still moving steady. At mile 22 I went to hit the lap button on my watch but in the dark I hit stop timer instead. I figured it out about a half mile later but at that point I didn’t know how much distance I had left. I was left trying to remember that a marathon is 42.2km. All I could remember was the 42. It only now occurs to now that 42 is the answer to life, the universe, and everything.
Back up the big hill, and Alyssa and Scott are still out there. Alyssa cheered me on and Scott paced me up the hill a little bit. I realized I was less than 2 miles from home but for the last time I had to make a pit stop. As near as I can figure I stopped about 10 times to pee. I was certainly well hydrated.
The last 2 miles seemed to take forever. The volunteers were still on the course and I thanked every group I saw. You could see the spotlights on the clouds above the village and I was so close. I finally crested the hill into the village and the finish line was in sight. My family was waiting for me before the turn and I got to kiss my wife and hug my parents.
Now it was down into the finishing chute. Multiple people told me before the race to make sure to enjoy the finish and not rush it. I slowed to a jog and raised my hands to the crowd. Their roar drowned out Mike Reilly saying my name but I didn’t miss him say “You are an IRONMAN!” He reached out for a high five and I gave him a hug. Two catchers tried to get me and I high fived them to. They gave me a blanket and my medal. I saw John and Mark at the food table and gave them both a hug. I grabbed two slices of watermelon and a cookie and sat down. While I was eating my watermelon Becky came in and we sat for a bit. Sarah came in too. We were all ecstatic and a little dazed. Who could blame us?
I sat for about five minutes before getting up to find my family. Hugs, pictures and more high fives. I didn’t know how to begin to tell them about my day but eventually I was able to find the words. Edwin and his girlfriend Megan came down to the finish and I got a big hug from him. We were done!
After saying good night to my family, the rest of us walked back up to the finish to cheer on the rest of the racers. Every time a Zer came down the chute I got a little choked up, I knew what they had accomplished. What we had accomplished.
If you’re still reading this I’m amazed, it’s almost as long as the race. You deserve a medal of your own.
- Make sure you have alternate workout gear, including shoes for the pre-race brick. Don’t skip it.
- Walking around before a race isn’t that bad, walking hills before a race is.
- Have a plan for food after the race. Don’t depend on the finish line in case whatever they have doesn’t sound like a good idea.
- Have a plan for breakfast the next day. All my planning lead up to the race but I hadn’t given any thought to the next morning. I ended up eating leftover Italian at 7:30am. Actually that was a good thing, but still.
- Figure out if you like the course provided sports drink, if not, have an alternate source.
- For special needs make sure you can actually carry what you pack. I had so much stuff in my run special needs that I couldn’t fit it into my pockets.
- Team Z cheer squads are amazing. Thank your teammates and volunteer for the next one.