Twenty-three men and six women assembled in Penticton over the British Columbia Day weekend for the thirteenth Ultraman Canada triathlon. It was an unprecedented contest in the event’s history, with a large group of talented frontrunners vying to win the men’s field, unpredictable shifts in positions between the female competitors, and a harrowing race against the time cutoff on each of the three days of the race.
The 10-kilometer swim on the race’s first day set the tone for the weekend, with Craig Percival of Melbourne, Australia, breaking the record for the lengthwise crossing of Skaha Lake by eight minutes - in a time of 2:24:28. He was followed by Penticton native and 18-time Ironman David Matheson, who clocked an all-time second best transition of 34 seconds, immediately cutting Percival’s 11:40 lead to ten minutes flat. The two leaders were chased by a pack that included 2011 UM Canada champion John Bergen and 2012 UM United Kingdom champion Inaki de la Parra.
Matheson laid down a furious assault on the Richter Pass climb against self-described swim-biker Percival, scraping an extra three minutes off the margin before crossing the line. Still, Percival’s opening gambit yielded a Day 1 course record of 6:43:00. After Matheson, More than Sport athlete Christian Isakson crossed the line in 7:20:55, with de la Parra just a minute behind in fourth and Bergen arriving five minutes later.
For the women, Iona MacKenzie of Edmonton, Canada, turned in a solid first day to finish in 9:28:49, ahead of fellow Canadians Kathleen Wood and Lucy Ryan, with 9:53:16 and 10:17:13, respectively. Though an Ultraman veteran, MacKenzie said she was surprised at finishing the day in the lead due to a lack of training leading up to the race. Ryan mentioned that she found herself in the same situation, joining in the race only three weeks ahead of the start. “I was supposed to be crewing for my friend this year, but she got injured and suddenly the slot was open. My husband asked if I wanted to do it, so I said ‘sure.’ Not the best way to go into a race, but it makes great training for Challenge Penticton and Ultraman Hawai’i!”
The final thrill of the day was delivered by Polish athlete Peter Lipinski, who developed motion sickness during the swim and spent 30 minutes in transition before getting on the bike. He crossed the line with only twelve minutes to spare before the 12-hour cutoff.
The second day recycled the initial portion of the first day’s bike course, with a flat and fast ride to Osoyoos and back before hitting the first of several difficult climbs. The men’s field started conservatively, though favorable winds contributed to a record pace. Once at the climb known as 'the wall,' John Bergen tried to ride off the front, initiating a frenetic chase. Six men went over the top and continued as a stampede before Matheson finally made a clean break at the 150-kilometer mark. Percival rallied from nutritional debt to reel Matheson in. Bergen, de la Parra, and Christian Isakson couldn’t keep up. By 180 kilometers, the leaders were alone again, this time with Matheson in the lead. They continued together all the way to the finish, crossing the line hand-in-hand.
Former champ Bergen was followed closely by Isakson, then de la Parra. That left Percival seven minutes ahead of Matheson and 42 ahead of Isakson—hardly a cushion in a strong ultra-endurance field. On this subject there was much hypothesizing among the top men in the massage area. Percival openly admitted that Matheson was the better runner, and even wondered if he’d be able to maintain a lead over Bergen, Isakson and de la Parra. Michael Owen’s name also came up, once again putting the list of top contenders at five in a race where anything can happen. Isakson perhaps put it best. "The run is like opening your drawer and finding nothing but dirty underwear. You’ve got to go with what you have."
In the women’s race, Iona MacKenzie put the hammer down to add another hour to her lead over Kathleen Wood. Meanwhile, Stacey Shand rode all the way from fourth place to breathing down Wood’s neck, finishing the day only six minutes behind second place overall. Lucy Ryan fell to fourth, but only by seven minutes. The contest for second place was a virtual dead heat.
Once again, the day closed with an absolute nail-biter. Rory Bass of Kelowna, Canada pedaled hard against the clock to get in less than two minutes before the cutoff. He preserved the contingent’s zero attrition rate going into the final day.
Day three kicked off at a full gallop for the men. Though 84.4 kilometers of racing would normally seem a gigantic distance, the top men knew they were already running out of room to eke out a higher place in the final rankings. De la Parra went off the front at a blistering pace, a gamble that he ultimately lost before making it to the first marathon point. He paid the price heroically, suffering throughout the remainder of the distance to pull off a fifth-best 8:18:15. Though Matheson made good on everyone’s predictions to lead the run, he did not bound away easily. Michael Owen kept him within sight for much of the day, letting the gap widen begrudgingly over the last 42 kilometers. Matheson crossed the line in 7:04:13, Owen followed at 7:30:42, then Bergen at 7:34:18. Isakson arrived fourth with 7:50:58. That left everyone waiting for Percival to arrive and decide how the final order would work out. Exhausted by the previous two days, he struggled mightily to the finish. When he finally collapsed at the line, he fell to third.
John Bergen ascended to second place by twelve minutes. Only six seconds stood between Percival in third and Christian Isakson in fourth.
Matheson’s finish was good for more than just the win, though. His cumulative time broke the course record set by Kevin Cutjar in 2010. Cutjar attended the race throughout the weekend to watch, as Matheson had been on his support crew during that 2010 race, even helping to pace him on the run. Cutjar spent five years coaching Matheson, and since then the two have trained as equals.
"I knew when I saw him break an 11-hour Ironman that he could break my record," Cutjar said. "I'm happy for him. He's worked hard for this."
By contrast, Matheson was surprised and gave credit to his fellow athletes. "I thought that I had as much of a chance of winning as anyone else, but I never thought about the record," he said. "I don’t think I would have raced as hard without Craig and John pushing me. I didn’t expect things to go this way."
Matheson was embraced by his wife and his mother when he crossed the line on day 3.
The Ultraman values of Aloha and Ohana were on display all weekend around the massage tables as archrivals on the course spoke as best friends in recovery. There was no better example as a physically demolished Percival ambled over to congratulate Matheson. "I only came intending to finish, but once it turned into a race, I raced. I certainly got a case of white line fever going against these guys, but I wouldn’t change a thing if I could do it over again. I feel absolutely privileged to have raced with these guys."
Iona Mackenzie was able to close out the women’s race with a third-best run of 10:34:56, giving her an overall finishing time of 30:15:38.
Stacey Shand’s 9:27:39 run was the best of the day, but fell just 21 minutes short of giving her the overall win. Lucy Ryan started the day with a bid to set a new women’s record for the double marathon, but found herself in trouble in the second half. She managed to salvage the effort and finish second in 10:12:10, putting herself back in third. Kathleen Wood fell from second to fourth, but was all smiles coming across the line nonetheless. "I came to finish and that’s what I did. I’m really happy with the result. Now it’s time to recover and get ready for my next race."
She and Ryan will both be competing in Iron-distance races within the next few weeks. Afterward, Ryan is signed up for the Ultraman World Championships in November.
There were two other remarkable accomplishments on the day. Brian Dillon provided the last moment of drama for Ultraman Canada 2012, running to the finish just thirteen minutes ahead of the cutoff, and Alan MacPherson of Great Britain achieved the distinction of becoming just the sixth person to complete all three Ultraman races. He finished Ultraman United Kingdom in 2011 and the World Championship in Hawai’i in 2012.
Copy and images (except image 1) courtesy of Jim Gourley.