The Savageman Triathlon was discovered 5 years ago by local tri-stud Tom McGee, who suggested it to Olivier ‘Kiwami Guy’ Mouyau, who actually went and did the race, where Tom did not. It’s kind of like Tom discovered a really cool bridge over troubled waters and suggested Olivier jump off and if he lived, he’d go too. Amazingly, it worked and now there is a small group of Ottawans who have turned this event into their main event for the year. They are strong and train diligently for this one event, because they know that if they don’t, there could be a hospital bed waiting for them, or at least a huge helping of humble pie. I’ve had my share of the pie, twice.
This year’s group of nutbars included Oli, Miriam Nicholson, Stephen Cann, Veronic Bezaire, George Reid, Doug Welsby, Laurel Johnson, Geoff Williams, John Hooper, Sindy Hooper, Paul Corriveau, Linda Corriveau, Mike Woodford and Rob ‘avoid the Med Tent’ McCulloch.
It’s not called Savageman because it’s easy. The race course is hard and lives up to its name. I’ll describe it in more detail later. 6 Time Ironman Hawaii Champ Dave Scott did the race this year said it was the most brutal and unforgiving race course he’s ever been on. 2 Time Women’s winner Sue Williams, Olympic Triathlon medalist, said the same thing. These people have a lot of experience and have raced all over the world, and if they say it is so, then it must be so.
In a nutshell, though, the Ottawa crew did what they do best—they went, they saw, they raced and they made Ottawa look like a breeding ground for podium finishers. I actually did the Savage 100, combining the Savage 30 (their version of an Olympic distance triathlon on Saturday (finishing 2nd overall) and the Savage 70 (their version of a Half Ironman) and won the Challenge (combined time of both events). Stephen Cann finished 7th and I was 9th overall. Veronic was 5th overall female and won her age group, while Laurel was 6th female and won her age group and top Masters. Geoff Williams and John Hooper were 2nd and 3rd respectively in the men’s 50-54. George Reid won 55-59. Olivier rocked his race. Rob ‘avoid the Med Tent’ McCulloch did. Mike Woodford got ‘round the course in fine fashion, as did Doug Welsby and Paul. It appears Doug won “The Most Talkative Savageman” with no competitor coming anywhere in the chattiness department. Miriam had two flats but soldiered on and got the job done. Almost everyone got up the unforgiving Westernport Wall. As always, the most important aspect is that everyone survived. In the Savage 30, Linda got her first Olympic distance triathlon under her belt, and Sindy Hooper won her age group. They really do wonder what is in the water up here.
In more detail, we rented a house on Deep Creek Lake, just across the water from the actual start line. It comfortably worked for 10 of us while the others had made alternate arrangements. George and I were the first ones on site with orders to buy the essentials—beer, chips, pasta, sauce, ground beef and chicken. I realized there was no way we would survive the weekend on just that, so we got some wine as well. We had our bikes checked out (mandatory) then picked up our race kits and the keys to the crib. We settled in and made supper just in time for Rob, Mike, Laurel and Doug to show up. Miriam and Olivier dropped by for a visit. Somewhat surprising to me, the main topic of discussion was not the economy, but the weather and what to wear with a forecasted temperature of just 8 degrees in the morning.
Since I was first up to bat with the Savage 30, I had a chance to test out some clothing combinations and went with a long sleeve top on the bike over my race top, then losing the heavy top for the run.
The course for the Savage 30 is akin to a loop of Gatineau Park, but with bigger and steeper hills. The run is like an inner loop of Gatineau Park, but condensed into 10k. Basically, it’s hard.
To make a very long story shorter, I was 5th out of the water, 3rd out on the bike, 2nd off the bike, and stayed in 2nd to the end. I stayed pretty comfortable and ran hard enough to make sure I was not caught, but had no intention of trying to catch the guy in front. Truth be told, there is no way I could have stayed with, or beaten him anyway, so it was good that he was so far ahead. It made my situation much easier to accept.
At the same time, Linda Corriveau was out tackling her very first Olympic distance triathlon and Sindy Hooper was having a wonderful day winning her age group. Paul Corriveau was having a fun time out on the course as well.
Saturday afternoon Stephen and Veronic arrived. That night, dinner was made and the discussion still had not turned to the economy. It was still almost entirely on the weather and what to wear. Oh, and on James Bond. A couple of the crew played pool in the basement to loosen up and then, gasp, at 9 PM, it was bed time for all.
In 2010, I chose to go around the Westernport Wall. Even though it was probably the right decision, it was hard for me to accept. I doubted myself and my ability, and normally, that is not my problem—I know I can or I will at least try and find out that I cannot do something. I don’t decide ahead of time tht I cannot achieve. There is no gray area. This year, I was committed to at least trying it. I don’t normally tell people my dreams, but I will make an exception: I dreamt about the Westernport Wall. I think I rode towards it a thousand times that night, but I never actually rode up it. I only rode to it.
George won the award for Most Consistent Early Riser in a Household of Early Risers. I was runner up if that matters to anyone. He turned on the coffee maker so the java was ready for all when they finally arose.
We had breakfast together. It was eerily quiet, like we were headed into a life and death battle. After breakie, we assembled our stuff and headed out the door and walked over to the start.
Set up in 10min we still had an hour to kill, so Veronic decided to spice things up by discovering a slow leak in her back tire. Who needs a warm-up with that kind of stress? We swapped her spare for the tube in the tire and all was good to go.
As a competitive kind of guy, when you race locally, you can joke around with people because you know where you will finish, to a large extent. At this race, there are many racers who are unknown and even more who are very fast and fit looking. It can be quite intimidating. I had lots of time to size up the competition, pushing myself down the rankings further and further. And then Dave showed up. Dave, The Man, Scott. 6 times he was the best in the world at the Ironman. He was one of the Big Four back in the 80’s. On any day, over any distance, no one could beat these guys except one of the other Big Four. But now he is 57, and downplays his fitness—“I’m just staying active.” he said to me the day before. Active for a guy who was the best in the world turns out to have a different meaning than for guys like me when I was only in the top 30. Sheesh!
We meandered down to the start where the water was 10 degrees Celsius WARMER than the air. It was much more comfy in the water than out.
Precisely at 8:28, we all gave the big Savage Cheer and at 8:30, we were off. I had a very good start, thinking I was on Dave’s toes with Stephen just up ahead. The first turn buoy is actually a huge inflatable Tommy the Turtle, and I think I was about 15th at that point. I moved over and around a swimmer or two and closed a gap and bumped Stephen off a set of toes, thinking to myself “these are mine, mine!! All mine!!” I felt like Gollum protecting ‘my prrrecioussss’ draft. I stayed where I was for the rest of the swim but we caught and passed another swimmer then made the second turn around the White Swan boat. We headed for home and I popped out of the water in 10th spot, just 6 seconds behind Sue Williams who had crushed me in the swim two years previously.
Transitions were slow for most, and I was very slow—dry race top, vest, arm warmers, socks and I was ready to go, but I think I lost 3-4 places and about a minute on Stephen and Sue. Dave’s bike was gone. “Okay,” I said to myself “he’s always been a good swimmer, so I’ll give him that one.”
Out on the bike, the first kilometre is in the park and then the route hangs a left up Toothpick Rd. It’s only about 400m long, but it’s at about a 20% grade. Knee breaking so early in the race. Finally at the top, I was able to see a small group ahead of me. Stephen was on the front end of it and moved right on through. I caught up to Sue and thought I should just follow for a while. Again, in our previous meeting, she out swam and rode me so the fact I was there with her was already a step up. I felt comfortable enough, so I decided to move on up the road in search of Stephen. The next 20k is a fantastic downhill section along a river—it winds, weaves, rolls up and down. It’s a blast and I think I rode it pretty well with only Lucas McCollum passing me. I popped out into the sunshine near Westernport and then my dreams from the night before came back. My stomach was churning and turning into knots. The previous year, I was right with Stephen at this point and pushing just a bit harder than I wanted. This time, I was alone. I reminded myself to stay calm, ride at my tempo and get to the bottom of the Wall with lots of juice. My stomach roared the closer I got, hanging a left turn up a small hill then the final left before the 300m long Westernport Wall. There are three steps to the Wall with a cross street being the separator—up a step, cross a street, up a step, etc. The first step has an average gradient of 20% for 100m. Think steeper than Blair Rd from the Aviation Parkway. The second step is also 100m long and is at a pedal stopping 25% grade.
The final step is about 75m long and is a staggering 31% grade. To make it even more challenging, it’s in really bad shape with cracks, holes and bumps to ruin your rhythm. Anyone who successfully rides up the Wall and finishes the race is awarded a brick, which will be engraved with that person’s name, and implanted in the road surface forever.
Race Architect and Director Kyle Yost and crew have thought of mostly everything—they brought 6 bus loads of spectators from the finish to cheer at the Wall. It is deafening riding up through the cheering crowd. And hopefully, it is inspiring enough to get one up and over. If not, no brick for you!
As mentioned, in 2010 I chose to go around the final step. It’s a left turn onto the cross street that brings you to another less steep but still steep parallel road, then back over onto the route.
As I made the final left turn to stare up at the Wall, I made sure I was in my easiest gear, sat down and rode up the first step, relaxing just a bit on the flat spot, then punched it up the next hill, then relaxed again for the final few pedal strokes. I looked up to make sure my way was clear. It was, except for Dave Scott lying on the curb and being helped up and back on his bike. I looked back down at the ground and punched it hard, building some cadence and momentum. Dave was out of the way and I rode straight up, eventually passing him as he desperately tried to get back on his bike on a very steep hill. I made it and all was good.
And then it was time for the hard part of the ride: the road stays steep and crushing for 7 more miles. 7 more miles? Yes, 7 more miles to the top of Savage Mountain.
Pedal, pedal, pedal, shift, shift, shift, pedal, pedal, pedal, shift, shift, shift. There was a growing dot up ahead in the distance, so I was gaining on whoever it was. Dave was not behind me anymore so I just continued on my own, slowly creeping back some distance on the dot.
The way down Savage Mountain is a very fun and technical descent with a few hairpin turns, complete with rock faces on the outside. Half way down, Josh Beck blew by me like I was fixing a flat. He would eventually notch the fastest bike split, but miss the course record by a minute. It was an unbelievable ride, but I saw it, so I believe it.
Finally, I caught the dot, aka, Stephen.
Flashback dream sequence:
The two of us started battling on the bike in this exact race a year previously—he lead me up the Wall (or I went around) and I caught and passed him then did not see him again until the run. Over the winter, we raced each other 10 times in the Euro-Sport Tacx trainer races, with him winning most of the contests, but I think I won the last one. All spring and twice in the fall we did the Tour de Gats and he crushed me over and over. At Kingston, I out rode him. At Cornwall, he killed me. 45k into Savageman, we were together again. I had caught him slowly, so I knew I would not simply blow by him and have that be the end of it. It had taken me this long to make back what he took out of me in transition. I sat 20-30m back to assess the situation. I think he heard me clear my nose, turned and saw me, then sped up. Ugh! I stayed close up the next steep climb, and then he was aggressive on the crest and downhill. I caught back up on a false flat along the Savage River, then the next hill and then let him lead the way on the next wicked descent. He was doing a great job showing me the line, so I was happy to stay where I was at that point. Besides, he’s fatter than I am.
We still had Killer Miller coming up at the bottom of that particular descent. The race sign on the side of the road says not to look left. That’s Killer. I looked.
We slammed on the brakes around the super tight 120 degree hairpin turn, accelerated out of it then shifted to our easiest gears, made another sharp right turn and up, up, up we went. Killer Miller has 7-8 moderately long sections alternating between 20 and 25%. Yes, it is that brutal. The sign on the side of the road asks “Who is this Leo Miller…” The next one asks “…and why does he hate me so much?” Another sign asks “How’s that aerodynamic equipment working for you?” Grumble, grumble.
Up we went at as good a pace as I could have hoped for and once almost at the top, Stephen pulled over with a flat front tire. I felt like waiting, but then thought better of it. I made sure he had everything he needed, and he said he did. I pedalled onward at my own pace making sure to stay honest with my effort, but not blow my legs apart.
They say that Miller is the last big challenge on the ride.
Not so, say I: Maynardier’s Ridge is no small bump at 15-20% for half a kilometre, 75k into a leg and spirit crushing ride. And then the course is a series of rollers, and this year, to add to the fun, it was into a headwind. Marvelous. Apparently, some of us had the headwind, and others thought it was a tailwind. I only wish.
The final 5k is a lot of fun: though gently rolling, it is a net downhill with lots of great twists and turns and great lines of sight. On the right day, you can feel super human. I felt more human than super, but still not too bad. I was looking forward to the run since I had had such a good one the day before.
In transition, I plopped the Speed Concept on the rack, put on my running shoes and was gone. The song over the PA system was Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day (you had a bad day).” Thus far, that thought had not occurred to me: I was in 5th spot, felt pretty good and was happy with my run fitness in the previous few weeks. I was actually optimistic.
And then I started to run.
“Hey, what gives? Where’d my running legs go?”
I told myself it was a long run and they would come around. Unfortunately, they just fizzled on me. At the first turnaround, (there are two per lap), I had about 4min on Stephen and that old guy was sitting about 100m behind him. Up and around the campground section I was on my way out as they were on their way in. I was imploding but had a good lead if I could just keep running. I thought that maybe some Coke would get things going but it was only enough to keep me going, not going faster. As I ran towards the oncoming cyclists, I saw Olivier, then Mike Woodford and later, I saw George. At the far end of the course, we had to run 400m up a fire road to the second turnaround. I could see that both Stephen and Dave were closing in me. I tried to get things going, but to no avail. My body was beaten down and my mind was not exactly the Rock of Gibraltar in terms of motivation. I ran haphazardly to the end of the first loop and then Stephen went by me. He had closed 4min on me in 6.5 miles and I was not really expecting to speed up for my second loop.
I know what you’re thinking: “Rick, that’s a pretty pessimistic view.” Yes, that is a very astute observation.
I kept on keeping on, thinking I could stay ahead of Dave, and that lasted until the campground. “What a brutal course! OMGosh!” he says to me as he goes by. I think to myself, “I’m the one being passed here. How do you think I feel?”
I continued onward, running again towards the oncoming cyclists and now the runners on their first loop who were less than 15k behind me. I was passed three times by runners on their first loop with one guy saying something along the lines of “I see the E on your calf and can only assume you’re having a tough day. Keep it up, man.”
“Thanks,” I said, thinking unflattering thoughts about him and then chastising myself for letting the negativity slip in my psyche.
I saw Geoff, then Veronic and George. Veronic was looking very comfortable and yelled encouragement and the fact she got her Brick! George was not so happy. Laurel was sitting 100m in front of me for miles 9 to 12 but I just could not get any closer.
On the final climb up the fire tower road, I was passed again. This time it was another guy with an E on his calf. “Good job. You’re in 7th place now” I said.
Stephen was running really well down the gravel road, but Dave was closer to him and looked like he had Stephen in his sights. I mused that I’d give up my spot to watch the battle between them over the last kilometre, but realized I would have to keep up in order to watch, and that was obviously not going to happen.
At mile 12, I committed to using Laurel as my incentive to start at least trying again. I started to gain some ground back on her and a few of the people who had run past me earlier. I caught her with 500m to go. We chatted a bit and then I continued on, wondering if all I would have needed was to start trying earlier; If my self-pity got the better of me and I really was not as bad off as I thought I was. If only I had tried to get rolling sooner. If only…
I crossed the line to a handshake from the Race Directors and congratulated them on the organization and the course, and then asked them to shoot me if I ever entered both events again.
I searched out Stephen and Dave to get the details of their finish—sure enough, The Man ran Stephen down and put 50m on him, proving once again why he is a legend. In our minds, he is now an even bigger one.
Olivier was next across the line, then Mike, Rob, Geoff, Veronic, John, George, Laurel, Doug and then Miriam. All safely accounted for and ready for a 2012 re-match.
Watch the video above and then read the story. When you get a chance, go to www.savagemantri.org and watch the inspirational video put together by Ottawa’s own Stephen Cann, actually 2nd in the first video.
On a scale of 1-10 where 10 is excellent, this race is a 15. If you are inclined to search out hard race courses and really well organized events, think Savageman. You won't be disappointed.