Ironman Canada isn’t easy.
Chilliwack’s Anthony Toth knows that as he looks forward to Sunday’s race in Penticton.
It starts at 7 a.m. on a rocky beach. As the starting gun fires, competitors hurl themselves into the cool waters of Okanagan Lake. Surrounded by flailing arms and legs, they swim 1,612 metres through oft-choppy waters to the first buoy, veer right for another 450m and then swim another 1,800m back to shore.
The fastest competitors can cover the 3.8 kilometres in just under an hour. The slowest take more than two hours.
Toth clocked in at 58 minutes and 29 seconds last year, the 21st fastest time in a field of 2,832. Not bad for a guy who only learned to swim in 2004.
“Prior to that, I couldn’t even get across the pool,” he laughs. “I can’t win in the swim, but I can lose in the swim.”
From the lake, competitors race through a transition area, ditching wetsuits for bike gear. Then they’re off on the second leg of this gruelling race, a 180 kilometre ride that takes them through Okanagan Falls, Oliver, Osoyoos and Keremeos before returning to Penticton.
The first part of the bike course is relatively easy, but things get rough once they reach Richter’s Pass. Over the next 11 kilometres, riders gain 2,295 feet in elevation to the summit. After that, it’s a series of hills and another climb to the summit at Twin Lakes.
This middle stage is where many an Ironman race is won or lost.
This is where it ended for Toth last year.
Normally, the bike stage is his strongest.
In 2010, Toth had the eighth fastest time, covering the course in 4:47:46. That was nine minutes and 10 seconds off the pace set by the leader, Christian Brader. It was too large a gap to overcome.
Toth is a good runner, but by the time he or anyone else finishes the swim and bike, there’s only so much they can do on the final stage.
The running course is 42 kilometres, along the scenic shores of Skaha Lake to Okanagan Falls, then back to the finish line.
It’s nice, Toth says, because it’s mostly flat or downhill. Some athletes get their second wind as they head out, knowing the race is almost at an end.
Some athletes find it too much to bear.
Watching then arrive at the finish line can be shocking. Even finely tuned athletes like Toth are rubber-legged messes at the end, some delirious due to dehydration.
Vomiting is common.
Did we mention? Late August temperatures in Penticton can reach the mid to high 30s (it was 35 last year).
“It dehydrates you quick, and if you’re going too hard and not hydrating, you’ll just be losing strength and getting slower the entire time,” Toth said. “Training in it and living in it helps people deal better with it, but the effect on the body is the same for everyone. If you don’t hydrate properly, sooner or later, it will hit you.”
If all of this sounds horribly sadistic and incomprehensible, you’re not alone. Your friendly neighborhood sports reporter covered three of these for the Penticton Western News and was left with the same impression each time.
Why do these people do it?
And yet, Toth and others will say there is a reward in testing yourself in such harsh conditions, emerging stronger mentally, if not physically, for the experience.
“The human body is meant for movement, and once you start moving, it feels good,” Toth says with a smile. “I’ve had races that were hard and I’ve stood at the finish line and said, ‘I’m not racing again.’ And the next day, I’m signing up. It’s an addictive activity.”
Toth has done enough of these now to be called a veteran.
In 2005, his first Ironman Canada, he won his age group as a 24-year-old. But since joining the pro ranks in 2008, he’s never finished higher than ninth overall (which he did in 2009).
And so, heading into the 2012 race on Sunday, he is a veteran with expectations. Toth is no longer happy with a top-10 finish.
This year, it’s all about top spot.
“Every time I’ve raced with purpose, I’ve done well,” he says. “It becomes very mental after about four hours, and if I just show up hoping for a personal best, focus becomes an issue.”
Toth has tailored a training regimen that he hopes will pay off. To maximize its benefits, the 31-year-old has made some major life changes.
He’s stopped working as a trainer and coach in Vancouver, freeing up enough hours to get more training and more rest.
Though he gets sponsorship help from SierraSil mineral supplements, the Adelphia Group, the SpeedTheory Triathlon Shop and Blueseventy wetsuits, cutting work hours still carries obvious financial implications.
“It’s the kind of sport where you’ve got to give up a little comfort to become good,” he explains. “No one becomes good holding on to the comfort of a safe life.”
Where training is concerned, Toth has evolved over the last six years.
In 2005, he pushed himself hard in every workout, looking for as much intensity as he could handle. Over time he’s adopted a more scientific approach. His workouts would still leave most people gasping for air and sore for a week, but he classifies them as moderate.
Instead of doing 20 hours a week of uber-intense work, he does 32 hours of moderate work.
Recognizing his weakness, Toth has put particular emphasis on swimming.
“Being a cross-country runner and basketball player in high school, running is more natural for me,” he says. “With swimming, my intervals (the clock) tells me I’m better than I was, but the real test will be sticking with the lead pack on race day. I can’t let them pull away from me.”
Toth has evolved on the mental side as well. He has become a student of the game, studying tactics and his opponents in search of an advantage.
One thing he’s learned over time is that he greatly prefers being the hunter as opposed to the hunted.
“Passing people is the greatest feeling in triathlon, it gives you a big boost to see someone and go after them,” he says. “Going hard at the start only to find yourself getting passed repeatedly is very mentally defeating.”
Striking the balance between aggressive and passive is the trick. Toth can’t let a rival get too far in front of him, lest he can’t catch him.
At the same time, burning himself out trying to keep up may be a bad idea.
“My game plan is always to not be up front at the start, pick it up in the last 40 or 50km of the bike and then the run,” he says. “If you start too early, your body won’t last, but most people know, once you hit Keremeos it’s time to start working harder.”
There is a chance that Toth will execute his plan and still fall short.
He knows he’s prepared to the best of his ability.
But will it be enough?
“Everything you do in training accounts for 90 per cent of your result, and the guys who win did all the work beforehand,” he says. “If I post a great time and someone beats me, I’ll have to be satisfied. But I know I’m well ahead of where I’ve been in the past. I expect to win this race.”
Get Ironman info online at ironman.ca
Get Toth’s personal training website at anthonytoth.ca.