Vancouver ITU World Championships -The Insider’s View

Peggy McDowell-Cramer sent me an email a couple days ago. Whenever I see her name in my inbox I get excited. Like before Alcatraz I was whining about my fear of sharks in the bay. Peggy sent me a note that said:

ben, drop the shark thoughts.   just race, keeping in mind how you want to do each leg thereof.
   i had a sailing mishap (rudder broke, dumped me) in the bay 40 years ago this july 31/august 1.  went over in the middle, directly out from the sf airport.  boat then sank.  i swam for about 15 hours.  never felt a fish.  thought about sharks only once, doubted sincerely that they came into the non-interesting bay, and forced myself not to think of it again.

Seriously, how can you argue with somebody who comes loaded with stories like that? This week it was Peggy’s race report from the 2008 ITU World Championships in Vancouver, Canada (home of the ITU). She was one of the unlucky few to have made the trip to Vancouver, only to suffer freezing conditions and poor race planning. Peggy is a tough girl, so when she complains it’s not whining, it’s just the way it is.

This is a long one, so I’ll make sure I keep my posts short and sweet the next few days to give everyone time to read it. A big thanks to Peggy for letting me post this. It strays far from her usual tone, so I would encourage you to read some of her previous letters to really appreciate this author. Here it is:


short version:  it stank.             longer version below.
     i just did the world triathlon championships in vacouver, b.c. june 7.  it was my 14th, and was, by leagues, the worst.  that’s some distinction.  there is currently a lot of discussion going on about it on a tri forum or two, and the happy result would be some changes in how these races are run.  we’ll see.
 image     many of us had uneasy feelings going into this race, and that was due to miserable communication and the astronomical cost this time.  the guilty parties at that time were the international federation which controls these races, and then our own u.s. federation, to a lesser degree.  later, it was race management which mismanaged things.
     i got to vancouver wednesday, with my race coming up saturday morning.  it was an ok day, but far from balmy.  vancouver was going through what they called unseasonably bad weather: cold and rainy. it started raining thursday, slacked off after early morning saturday….although the wind then kicked up….and came back sunday, and with real vigor monday.  there were races going on all of those days except the last.  the temperature was in the 40s and 50s, with the water 12C and 11.8C, according to the papers.  so, 54f-ish?  i’d done a really cold, short swim in a short tri the saturday before, up at pt. mugu/oxnard.  the water is always cold there in august, and it was brain-freeze cold this time, considerably colder than vancouver, and everyone swam in it without a complaint.
     things were so spread out in this city that it was difficult to get from A to B, and especially with big-city no-parking problems.  the actual race was in the utterly fabulous stanley park on the far part of the west end.  it was, by and large, closed off for all of the days of racing.  but registration was in the center.  this was how the whole thing went: you must do XYZ, but you can’t get there, but it has to be done by this time.  and so it went.   the u.s. team  hotel was downtown, maybe 1.4 miles away from the start of the race activity.  the rain, of course, added to the problems of ability and willingness to get around.
     thursday was, per usual, to be the team picture, then the parade and opening ceremonies, then the dinner, which was close to two miles away.  but the rain gave the organizers pause…and they cancelled parade plus the ceremonies.  our team did go ahead with the outdoor picture in the rain.  and we got over to the aquarium for the dinner however we best could.  i had my bike at my motel, and a bunch of time, so i just hoofed it from the hotel.   at this point we got the best part of the whole week: the aquarium and dinner. 
     the set-up was spread out, to handle the numbers, but it also meant we didn’t get to connect with too many others, as would have happened if we’d all been in the same room at the same time.  that said, they did a great job, food and show.  they put drinks at the front door.  then we walked through some exhibits, then downstairs to the salad course.  many tables were put out between the walls of tanks, so we watched the dolphins while we had salad, sat and talked, watched other things, talked, sat, and generally enjoyed it.  these big animals are trained for daytime shows, so they are plenty happy to swim close to the glass walls and do their tricks.   from there we went outside and saw really delightful otters, lots more, then back downstairs for the main course….and the whales.  they have four beluga whales and i was transfixed.  i’ve never seen a whale like that…..perfectly white….and they were wonderful.  i can’t even recall what we saw in the dessert room, but mostly recall the magnificent whales.  it was just delightful.
    friday was a full day, too.  getting things ready, getting parked, biking to the hotel for the team meeting, then back to the church for the worship service i was doing.  it was a big, old, downtown church.  vancouver has a big, old crime problem, so we had to have someone stationed at the door, to keep vagrants out, let worshipers in.  it was somewhat of a downer, although the actual worship time was fine.  then change clothes again and go over to the transition area to check in my bike.  this is an enjoyable time since you then get to run into people, meet new ones, and generally be social.  and take lots of pictures.  the T area was billed as being .6 mile from the start, but i believe that was a bit short.  lots and lots of walking.  actually, the line to get checked in was so long that i took that opportunity to bike the  6 mile bike loop (4 of them on race day).  it had been closed for races the other days, or it was too late and/or rainy to bike.  as for the swim—i thought i’d just wait for race day, do a warm-up, then cope with it. 
    race day was rainy when i left my motel, but that somewhat abated by the time i arrived at the race site.  it was in the 40s at first, but warmed up a bit as the day wore on.  my wave was the last of the women’s to go off, scheduled for 8:15am.  they usually alternate waves of men and women, but this time it was all women, then all men.   they had some kayaks out for guiding and pulling in people who gave up due to the cold.  the shorter races in previous days had had a longer swim than advertised, but they decided to cut ours to 1000m (from 1.5k)—which is to say, they kept the same course.   the walk from the T area to swim start was the same .6(+) and it was cold, even with a wetsuit on, so i put grocery bags on my feet, secured at the ankles with rubber bands, and was relatively happy with the warmth provided. by now the rain was gone, but the wind had really gotten on a roll, and there were whitecaps on the water.  not waves, just whitecaps.  i was trying to see how the prior waves were going from the start to the first turn buoy, to see how the drift would be.  it just seemed to be a case of fighting against the wind going out, then having it at the left as they headed south. i got in to warm up and found the water pretty choppy and uneven, but not more than that.  then i got in line to go into the holding pen for our wave.  and waited.  and waited. 
     the temporary wait, due to not enough kayaks and not being able to handle things (rescue someone, tip over…) led to the officials herding us back inside a big tent very close to where we were standing.  it was full.  it was here that my endurance got a severe test.  it was cold.  there was no room.  most of us sat down on the grass (inside the tent) to wait out whatever the future was to be (1.5 hours, in actuality).  a woman sat to my right, somewhat behind me.  she’d been next to me outside, shivering and doing so with a running commentary (primarily self-referencing), and holding onto me.  once we made a move to go inside, i made a valiant effort to put space between us.  it was not to be.  she was right behind me again, holding on to me.  some other wonderful woman, alongside her, slowly and sweetly explained that she would burn up valuable energy by shivering, to breathe deeply and slowly, and so on.  i’m very sorry to relate that the advice was not taken.  killing people really looks bad when you’re a minister, so i sucked it up and said nothing.  
     at long last we were told that they’d cancelled the swim, were replacing it with a 3k run!!!!!!, to walk back down to the bikes (hurry), and get ready.  i was furious.  i can understand incompetence (reason for the boat trouble), i can understand cancelling the swim, but replacing it with something out of the blue?????  they jimmied up the extra 3k on the already byzantine run course, and reaped the ensuing congestion mess.   there is a method of starting people off on the bikes at 5 second intervals, and it would have worked much better than what they threw at us.  it was so crazy and impromptu (even after two other days of races there) it left you wondering if you’d get off the bike and be told there would be a javelin throw event before the 10k run.
    all of the men had to do the no-swim-extra-run thing, and the congestion on the bike, due to it being four laps, was pretty hairy.  i didn’t get hit, didn’t crash, and consider myself very successful.  the run was yet more crowded, and a good time had by next to none.
     after the race we were led into another big tent, which had food and drink.   i stayed there a while, then made my way, again, to the T area to get my bike.  there is some deal of picking up and packing up to this part of things, and it took some time before i was set to pedal a couple of miles to where my car sat.  but from there it was smooth sailing over to where my motel was, to get clean, and get back into town for a team usa party that evening.  this was an informal affair with minimal food, but it was, at the least, most of us together in the same room, able to see one another.    
   the next day friend donna smyers came to meet me, and we ventured out in an effort to squeeze some enjoyment out of vancouver.  we went up the hill to the capilano suspension bridge park.  sort of touristy, but history fairly well done.  i actually went over (and back—no other way out) this bridge, which is some 230 feet over the water below.  i cannot believe i did it.  i am not ok with high up/nothing underneath you things.  but it had a long history, all sorts of people doing it, and had high sides on it.  there are huge trees in this place, quite old, and another feature is a series of walkways in and above the treetops.     after this stop we went further up to grouse mountain (a ski area in winter, maybe) and hiked up a half mile or so, seeing a wolf in a pen en route. 
   that night there was the awards dinner, held at the ice hockey stadium on the edge of town.  but that was late information.  my printed stuff said it was across a bridge, south, so i cruised that geography for quite a while before heading back to where it really was.  the food was very good, and we ate in the arena, so there was a place to sit, but people were so spread out it was hard to find someone you knew.  once i found two usa friends i just sat down and stayed.  then two more came, so i ended up seeing four people i knew.    once the awards were handed out they pulled out a band and had planned for people to dance the night away.  but by then people were so disenchanted that the crowd evaporated and i with them.
      next year, worlds will be on australia’s gold coast (just above brisbane), the beginning of september.  i got all of their literature and read it on the plane home, to pull myself out of the mood gutter.  it’s pretty certain those aussies will have a swim, come what may.  with plenty of lifeguards out on surfboards, which don’t tip over.  i’ll look forward to that.

Published by Ben

Ben Collins Professional Triathlete

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  1. Peggy! Now I know why everyone was so cold, unusual to see pros in goosedown jackets, the blankets, etc. with grim looks plastered on tight faces. Same day and weather and our crew team was in Seattle was in short sleeves on the water for two hours and warm and sweating; but, BIG DIFFERENCE, we didn’t have to stand in the rain, walk in the rain for miles, nor wait around for hours after getting wet in cold water. If we get wet from oarsplashes we whine about getting cold if the coach stops us for even a few minutes. Winter rowing is warmer than being idle and wet in windy, 50F weather. Great spirit and determination you have to take the conditions and see it through! You’re awesome!! All of you masters doing such a tough sport, just incredible, congratulations and thanks for the story. Our threats of nature at NW Regionals will be a bald eagle defending her nest and hopefully no surprise tornadoes. When the water is rough……they just cancel or shorten the races……our sport doesn’t include swimming!

  2. Right on the money!!! The ITU needs to look in the mirror. This was their home turf and they goofed it badly. Hopefully the nect Canadian Venue for the World Cup (likely Canmore, AB) will put on a better show… Canmore was home to the nordic events during the 1988 winter olympics, and has hosted numerous world cups in xc skiing, biathlon and mountain biking, not to mention an xterra race and 24 hours of adreniline…

    The Local Organiser for the Edmonton race was 10x more professional. Shame on Vancouver…

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