IM Canada Roll Down or “How I Became the Luckiest Girl in Penticton”

It almost seems like too much time has passed to even talk about this year’s Ironman World Championships in Kona, but with NBC having just broadcast their annual Ironman Hawaii show this past weekend, it seems like an appropriate time to put the final wraps on my thoughts about the race.

Before I can talk about the race and my Kona experience, I first have to tell the story of how I got my slot, because it really set the stage for everything that happened afterwards.  So I have to go back to August and Ironman Canada. It’s a bizarre story.

The Race

I competed in Ironman Canada in late August with my husband and another training partner. It was a good day for me as I had a breakthrough swim and a solid bike, but I fell apart somewhat on the back half of the run course, so I missed my big time goal of cracking 11 hours.  11 hours would have been a stretch even if I had hit my run goal, but that’s what I was shooting for.  I ended up finishing 9th in my AG, which I was pretty happy with.

Immediately after the race, I was in the food pen hanging around and waiting for the rest of our group when I spotted Sister Madonna sitting talking to someone. She looked very fresh, too fresh to have just run 26.2 miles in the heat, and I realized she had dropped out of the race. Sonja and I had briefly talked about this the night before, when I was getting ahead of myself and wondering what might happen if I put together a great day. She had told me that if Sister Madonna (who is 81 this year!) started the race but didn’t finish, her age group’s (of which she was the sole participant) Kona slot would be reallocated to the largest women’s age group. They had mentioned at the Welcome Dinner that my AG (40-44) had the most participants. So when I saw Sister Madonna and realized she had dropped out, I also realized that my AG had another slot. I had heard that because Canada is so close in time to Kona, slots roll more at that race than most of the races. I was chatting with some men afterwards, and one of them told me that in 2010, the last Kona slot in his AG rolled to the 12th place finisher.

On Monday morning, we had a decision to make. Although I wanted to attend the roll down, doing so meant missing out flight out of Spokane, which meant my parents would have to watch the kids for another night. I know this doesn’t seem like a huge deal, but we were facing airline change fees, a night in a hotel in Spokane and our kids’ disappointment that we weren’t coming back when they thought. We hemmed and hawed. We decided to go to Kona registration early and see how many slots there were and how many people in my AG had registered. If most of the girls had registered early, we would leave for the airport.

The Roll Down

Mark and I started stalking the registration table at 9:30. Registration had opened at 9:00 and closed at 11:00, at which time the roll down would begin. One girl had registered so far. There were originally four Kona slots, but with Sister Madonna’s slot, there were now five. It seemed like a huge long-shot. Still, the guy manning the registration table told me, “if we were in Florida, I would tell you to leave for the airport. But this is Canada.”  Mark decided to go for a swim and I went to get a massage at the nearby massage tent. I went back over at 10:15. Still only one girl ahead of me had registered. I started pacing around near the tent. I went into the merchandise tent and pretended to look at gear, all the while looking at the registration table to see who was showing up. I kept rationalizing – if it were me and I was one of the top four girls, I would have been there right at 9:00 to register. I certainly would have been there by 9:30. I walked around some more and started to feel ill. I tried to find ways to pass the time without stalking the registration guy.

Mark showed up around 10:30. There were 30 minutes left to register and still only one girl out of the top four had shown up. At this point, I was making Mark check the registration table. I couldn’t go over there any more. I was sitting outside the tent, watching athletes go in and out and just wanting so badly for the whole process to be over.  Finally, with a few minutes to go, they started announcing that if you had a guaranteed slot, you had only a few more minutes to register before your slot went into the roll-down. I looked around, expecting to see a hoard of 40-something women running towards the tent, but there was no one running. Just a larger and larger crowd of hopeful athletes, all hoping that this might be their lucky day.

Finally, the roll down was set to begin and we crowded in closer. The rules were explained. If they called your name, you had just a few seconds to accept your slot or they would move on to the next person. Mark and I started to have a big debate. He thought I had a roll-down slot because there were five slots but only one person had registered, so the remaining four went to the girls who were 6th through 9th. I disagreed. I told him that Sister Madonna’s slot was part of the roll down and that girl (number 5) did not have to register by 11:00. We debated this for a few minutes as we listened to them announce names.  I realized most AGs only had one roll-down slot, and in some cases, no roll downs. It seemed crazy that my AG had 4 roll down slots. I knew Mark was wrong and that I didn’t have a guaranteed slot. I needed one girl ahead of me to not be there.

Before I knew it, they had gotten to women 40-44. He called the name of the 5th place girl. She was there and took her slot. Then he called the name of the 6th place girl and the unthinkable happened. She was not there. I held my breath and looked around, but no one stepped forward. That’s when I knew it had happened – I WAS GOING TO KONA!!!! The 7th and 8th place girls were there, and then the announcer said, “and for the last spot in the 40-44AG…Jennifer Schaffner.”  I screamed and Mark and I both started to cry. I hugged the stranger next to me who had been following our drama. With my driver’s license and credit card in hand, I walked up to get my sheet of paper and turned around for Mark to take this picture of me.

The luckiest girl in Penticton

It was so unbelievable. I had finished 9th and I was going to Kona. I hadn’t broken 11 hours, but I was going to Kona. I had walked most of the hills on the second half of the run, but I was going to Kona. I had only been a triathlete for 18 months, but I was going to Kona. There was a fair amount of disbelief. The whole way to the airport from Penticton – a 5-hour drive – the conversation went like this. Me: “Can you believe I am going to Kona?”  Mark: “No. I can’t.” Me: “Me neither.” Seriously, we had that conversation the whole day. And the weeks that followed. Heck, even when I got to the island, I was still having those thoughts in my head. It was a lot to process.

I took a few easy days after Canada, but it was pretty much back to business for me after the race. Actually, that’s not really true – it was more than business as usual. Now I felt driven. I was going to Hawaii and I wanted to prove that I deserved it. I wasn’t a joke and it wasn’t a fluke. I belonged and I deserved to be there just like everyone else who had qualified. Except in the back of my head, I didn’t really feel that way. I had some doubts. I had doubts about myself, and the course, and the conditions, and just about everything.

So with those thoughts in my head and having only gotten my slot six weeks before, I headed to the Big Island to compete in the Ironman World Championships.

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