Heather’s New Balance Half Iron Race Report from the eyes of Clint Lien

The Lady is a Champ

Yesterday was the New Balance ½ Ironman and I was in attendance as a friend and fan but also as a coach. It wasn’t the first time I’d been to a race as a coach but it was certainly the most intense.

Heather Wurtele and I began working with each other last Christmas and it’s been one exciting journey. I never have to stir up inspirational speeches for her. I don’t send her quotes designed to amp up her mojo. With Heather you have to yank on the rains. She was born ready to run through walls – but running through walls is seldom the quickest way from point A to B and it can lead to problems.

We collaborated on a program and the returns came quickly. Her run was her weakest link and our focus was on that while trying not to sacrifice the other two.

The first test of the new program was the UBC Olympic distance triathlon. We went to the race together. The only thing I was nervous about there was a mishap on the bike. With sheets of freezing rain coming down sideways and Heather’s devil take the hind most attitude, my fears were reasonable but not deep. We knew going into it she was competing with the men and the event was really just a test. I was pretty confident she wouldn’t take any foolish chances. She performed awesome, as expected, and we enjoyed the buffet on the ferry back to Victoria after.

Her next event was a much bigger ticket. Wildflower – one of the flagship races of our sport and one we both had high hopes for. It was also her first race as a pro.

I was working in India on race day – and that was one nerve racking day. There was no internet coverage and all I could do was sit in my room waiting for the occasional text from a buddy who was there watching his girlfriend race. When all the dust settled Heather had come 10th after a disappointing run. She had worked hard on her run and we both had expected a better day but it didn’t take much conversation to realize the problem wasn’t run related, rather it was nutritionally based. Still, a top ten at Wildflower in your pro debut wasn’t too shabby at all. I was proud and knew there were better things in store.

The next big race was the 101 in Clear Lake CA. The big prize money there attracted a deep field but we didn’t talk about the other girls. We didn’t predict a placing and we didn’t talk about times. All we wanted was a satisfying race. This time we sat down with pen, paper and calculator and we created a nutritional plan that we were both confident would alleviate the problems she’d had at Wildflower.

She arrived at the race quietly confident and in mint shape.

Race day was hot and a minor planning snafu found Heather at the start line with six salt tablets. Heather is a sweater. The minor snafu turned major when six miles into the run – where she was grooving along in 2nd place, her world tipped upside down. The contents of her stomach splashed out on the pavement and she was rightly yanked off the course. The first DNF of her life. I remember my first DNF like I remember my first heart break.

Like another champion I know she was a wreck over the incident for about twelve minutes then it was back to business.

Her next race was the New Balance ½ Ironman in our hometown of Victoria.

Now originally this was going to be a “training through” race. It was two weeks after the 101. I wasn’t going to try and hold her taper because the Lake Stevens ½, three weeks after the New Balance, was a higher priority for us and it would have been compromised. However, because Heather hadn’t really done much running in the 101 and she recovers from cycling about six minutes after getting off her bike I thought it was possible to load her up for a week and then bring her down for a good race at New Balance. With her first two races as a pro not going so well I really felt it was important for her to have a good day and to have it quickly before she had too much time to think about it. We never acknowledged it but we were both glad the New Balance race was coming up fast.

Things were going great. She was firing on all cylinders. The numbers were looking stellar!

On the Wednesday before the race I was having lunch with a friend when she rang me up on the cell. We have kind of a Skype routine in the evening so when she calls it’s usually important. Here’s how the conversation went:

Me: Hey, what’s up?

HW: Not much. Just finished the ride.

Me: Yeah, how did it go?

HW: Pretty good. Rode the Highlands area mostly.

Me: Nice. Everything feeling good?

HW: Well, it was until I crashed descending off Munn road.


Me: Did you just say you crashed?

HW: Yup.

(Now understand – she’s talking perfectly calm and for those of you don’t know Victoria or Munn road it is one snaky steep hill!!)

Me: What happened? Was it bad?

HW: My back wheel hit a rock and washed out on me. Pretty bad spill.

My heart sank as she listed off the body parts that were sore, banged and bleeding.

The worse seemed to be her hip. When I saw her the next day her trousers were swollen off her hip like she was the elephant woman. I thought she may not be racing the rest of the summer let alone this Sunday. Somehow this wonderful lady had offended the triathlon gods and she was being made to pay a price.

She did everything right – ice, anti-inflammatories, massage – repeat!

Thursday was worse than Wednesday and Friday was worse than Thursday. She tested the hip with a gentle run but the hip got a D minus. Saturday she “said” it felt better and she thought she could race.

Sunday morning I arrived at the lake and I honestly can not recall a time when I was more nervous. Racing myself was much easier. I never really cared how I did. I just liked racing. Now I had invested in someone else and I cared how she did. She needed a good race. I needed her to have a good race, but she needed to not damage her hip permanently with the effort.

The plan was for her to swim and bike and if the hip complained at all she would drop out.

This years race was a chase format. Based on last years times the various heats were set off at staggered intervals and the first person across the finish line would be declared the overall winner and receive a $500 bonus.

Heather had won this race last year and it wasn’t an easy win. She had Lori Bowden charging hard to catch her and she ran scared the whole way. Lori wasn’t there this year but veteran Christine Fletcher was and she looked fit as always. Charlene Waldner was also in the line up and after a bad day at the Lanzerote IM she was charged up to have a good one. Then there’s always the unknown factors – the out-of-towners no one knows who suddenly appear and stir the waters. And with the chase format I knew Heather would not have a moment to let up if she wanted to take this thing – and she wanted to take this thing.

PRPP athlete Emily Cocks had flown in from Chicago to do the race as well. She was coming more for a break and a chance to see the city than to unleash fury at the race. Her mother had often visited here as a child so she wanted to have a look around.

Emily was a state swimmer for Michigan in her college years so no matter how tired she was, she could be counted on for a solid swim. Heather and I thought it might worth having a go at staying on her feet.

Heather’s husband Trevor was also racing. He’s a damn fine athlete in his own right and it was not unrealistic to consider it might be him running her down for the win if everything unfolded as it might.

Johnny Caron was the heavy favourite on the men’s side. Coming off an 8:50 at Arizona, his fitness wasn’t in questions. He was the one to watch for.

All this was assuming Heather’s hip held out and that was the foremost thought on my mind.

Her heat started and I stood with my buddy and former coach, NTC development coach Pat Kelly. Pat’s been coaching triathletes for more than twenty three years now and he confessed he still gets nervous when his athletes are out there – just not as nervous as I was. It was all about that damn hip for me. I couldn’t think about Jonathan Caron, Christine Fletcher or anyone else. All I was worried about was that hip.

As the swimmers from the earlier heats were emerging Pat and I were amused to see two swimmers with red caps cutting a perfectly straight line through the wending mass of yellow and blue caps. They were swimming fingers to feet. It was a beautiful site and when Emily popped out of the water with Heather glued to her hip I had the satisfaction of seeing a plan unfold as it should. The time on my watch read 26:57 – about three minutes faster than last year – but the timing mat was still forty meters away up the beach.

I had a momentary grip of fear that Heather might sprint past Emily in the exit chute and take the swim prime from her. Now Heather would NEVER show that kind of poor form if she gave it even a moments thought but I knew Emily’s attitude towards this race was not the same as Heather’s and if Emily slowed down for even a millisecond in that chute Heather would blaze by her. I was pleased to see Emily was still there to race and she moved quickly to the transition area with Heather a half a step behind her.

It was a cool morning and Emily made the sound decision to put on more clothing. Heather was on the bike first and now the long wait began.

I paced. I stood. I paced some more. I tried to sit down but found pacing was better.

I’d brought my cruiser bike with me and had stashed it by a tree down from the transition area. It was my intention to bike ahead of her at the start of the run and spy to see if she was limping. I knew she’d hold true off the bike for the first hundred meters into the cover of the trees but I wanted to see how she looked when she thought no one was looking.

As expected Heather came off the bike first. She’d caught all the previous heats and was now the overall leader of the race. She looked good – strong.

Now the real question would be addressed – could she run?

I didn’t watch the transition. Instead I mounted my cruiser and zoomed up the road to find a hidey hole to do my covert observing. I was shocked to see Christine coming right behind Heather off the bike. Her coach, a friend of mine, said they’d been doing some bike focus stuff recently – and it clearly had paid off. Putting time on Heather in the bike takes a world class effort.

Soon the lead bicyclist came buzzing into view and a few steps behind was Heather. She wasn’t listing to either side but her face was strained. She said something to me but I didn’t absorb it. I said something to her but I don’t remember what it was. I hit my stop watch and waited for the chasers. Of course Fletcher was the first one there. She looked good. Shortly after came a woman I didn’t know. She looked REALLY good. Then Caron came through. He asked me “How far ahead?!” I looked at my watch and yelled “Five minutes” but I’d screwed up. Fletcher and the unknown girl (who would turn out to be a Calgary gal named Rosemarie Gerspacher) were five minutes up on Jonathan. Heather was ten minutes up. I felt badly about that. Sorry, Johnny!

Things get a little hazy around here. It’s hard to remember exactly the chain of events. Waldner came through looking like the Terminator as she always does and Heather’s husband Trevor rolled through. Honestly he looked faster and more relaxed than any of them.

After he went through I headed back to the finish area and did some more pacing.

The way the lakes are situated you could see the runners coming out of the trees three to four minutes down the path. The run-leader cyclist would, of course, emerge first so we were all waiting to see that biker pop out of the trees. When he did the first time it was clear he was still pulling Heather. She’s a tall woman and easy to spot. She ran by and was still keeping it true. But she looked pale and “concerned.” Her arms were dangling. I suggested she try to keep them moving. I don’t think she heard me.

Some genius beside me yelled “THE OTHER GIRLS ARE GAINING – DON’T LET THEM CATCH YOU!!!” I’m sure she hadn’t thought of that.

I looked at my watch and to my surprise the next runner to emerge was Rosemarie. She’d caught Fletcher who was gamely hanging on five steps back. Rosemarie looked like she was flying! But my clock said otherwise. Heather had actually put thirty seconds on her!

Caron blazed through next. Now he really was down by five minutes. He’d made up five in the first loop. One loop to go. It was going to be tight – provided the hip held out! Shortly after Caron came Trevor – still looking awesome.

Now it was back to waiting.

And waiting.

And more waiting.

My ex-fiancé came roaring over, excited to say hi and do a little catch up. I hadn’t seen her in a few years but I was far too distracted to make any thing that closely resembled pleasant conversation. After what seemed three days the cyclist popped through the trees and I swear my knees got weak when I saw that tall woman come four steps behind him. Then my stomach got weak when about two hundred meters behind her came the dark figure of Jonathon Caron.

But we all know the ending to this fairy tale. Heather held him off. As she approached the finish line I managed to find the wherewithal to snap a photo of her and shout some inane statement like “Way to go.”

I jogged over to the finish line feeling as proud as a new father. She hobbled over to the fence and the first words out of her mouth were – “My hip is killing me!”

I was sick at the thought that maybe this day would cost her dearly for the rest of the season. Only time would tell.

Then she said “Thanks for telling me to keep my arms moving. It made a difference for the rest of the run.”

Funny what gets through and what matters.

The lady was a champ. She needed this.

I needed it.



~ by trevorandheather on July 10, 2007.

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