A North Vancouver mom battled freezing conditions, a dispiriting last-minute course change and, not least of all, some of the best athletes in the world and came out on top at the ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships held earlier this month in Belfort, France.
Colleen Gray-Hewett qualified for the 40-44 age group championship by winning the half iron distance in her category in last year's Shawnigan Lake Triathlon, setting her up for a showdown against the world's best, all of whom needed to qualify for the World Championships by winning a sanctioned race. When Gray-Hewett arrived in France, however, she found conditions were not exactly what she was hoping for.
"It was similar to Vancouver," she said with a laugh. "We were hovering around between nine to 12 degrees. It was pretty chilly, it was damp." It was so cold, in fact, that organizers cancelled the swim portion of all the races, turning the course into a run-bike-run. This eliminated one of Gray-Hewett's strengths and tacked on an extra helping of her weakness.
"I was actually sad (about the change)," she said, adding that she believed her chances of winning had floated away with the cancellation of the swim. "Aside from the temperature - no one does well after a really cold swim - usually I'm a swim-biker. The bike would be my strength but I usually like the swim."
Gray-Hewett and her coach - famed North Shore racer Lesley Tomlinson - devised a strategy of taking the first 10-kilometre run easy and then hammering the 90-km bike and, hopefully, hanging on for the final 20-km run. The plan went well early but was tested when the bike course veered up Ballon D'Alsace, a 13-km pass that gained fame as the first official mountain climb stage in Tour de France history back in 1905. When Gray-Hewett finally reached the top - where it was two degrees and raining - she was faced with a descent that included 44 switchbacks. She survived, passing a few nasty crashes on the way, and set off on the final run.
"I felt pretty smashed after the bike but happy with the three hour time," she said. "I took a bit long in transition to gear down from the bike and set up for the run but then found my 'happy' pace for the 20 km, leaving a couple of matches unlit to enable a kick to the finish."
There was, however, one more curveball thrown by Mother Nature. With the cold weather, officials allowed racers to wear extra clothing. That meant that typical race markings were not visible so no one knew who was in their age category. With two kilometers left in the final run Gray-Hewett spotted a competitor whose number was very close to hers and guessed that she might be in the 40-44 age group. With energy left to burn, Gray-Hewett blasted past her and crossed the line in a time of 5: 30: 27. She knew it was a good time but had no idea what times her age-group rivals had posted.
"I didn't know if I was top five, top 10. No idea. I knew I was pretty good but I didn't really know (how good)."
There was no fancy scoreboard flashing up results for the age-group racers so Gray-Hewett and her cheering squad - husband and bike tech Mark Hewett, 11-year-old son Mason and nine-year-old daughter Elodie - packed up and headed back to the cottage they were staying at. By the time they arrived, 90 minutes after she finished the race, a few interesting texts and emails had arrived alerting Gray-Hewett that she might want to go online and check out the official results. It turns out the woman she passed with two kilometers left in the 120-km race was, in fact, in her age category and she also happened to be the leader at the time. That confident move in the final minutes of the race, therefore, made Gray-Hewett a world champion.
"I was shocked," she said. Now she had a medal ceremony to attend, but first some local fare. "We had a little champagne. And a little dance."
Not bad for a 43-year-old who only started racing triathlons five years ago. Gray-Hewett started in the sprint distance at the North Shore Triathlon and slowly moved up to Olympic, half Ironman and eventually full Ironman.
"I'm more motivated by having a race to train for than just doing it for the sake of doing it," she said about what keeps her going. "And having had some success, it's sort of addictive."
This was by far the biggest win of her racing career but she's earned an automatic bid to defend her title in 2014, although by that time she'll be in the 45-49 age group. Older, however, does not necessarily mean slower.
"They were actually faster this year than our age group," she said. "It's just very competitive . . . you have to be constantly improving. People are actually improving as they go through their 40s rather than going down."
A full-time mom, Gray-Hewett does her training early in the morning or squeezes in sessions while the kids are at school. Her children are more into soccer and field hockey than triathlon but, whatever they choose, Gray-Hewett is hoping that she's offering some inspiration for them to live healthy lifestyles.
"They were so excited," she said about the reaction the kids had in France. "It is so much fun all of us going to the races together, exploring new places. Seeing their happy faces in the tough moments of a race keeps me going."
. . . Gray-Hewett wasn't the only North Vancouver racer to hit the podium in France. Fellow Lynn Valley resident Kara Imai finished third in the women's 20-24 age category, clocking a time of 6: 06: 19.
North Vancouver women also scored well at the Saunders Subaru Victoria Triathlon held June 16. Cheryl Orlovsky won the overall female title at the Olympic distance while Gillian Moody finished third overall in the women's Half Iron.