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From the sidelines at Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote … what makes the race, and island, so special

Told as only an award winner (former) documentary producer from CBC could ...

Photo by: James Mitchell / Club La Santa

On most days, Josh Bickford-Smith would be at the Bowring Park Café in Wellington, in the British county of Shropshire, chatting up customers and bussing tables.

But Saturday was no ordinary day.

Photo: David Gutnick

Instead, Josh was with his mom, Liz, in Playa Blanca on Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands: sunscreen smeared on his cheeks and forehead, a pair of purple sunglasses perched on his nose, excitedly awaiting for his dad to emerge from T1.

“There he is! I can see his white helmet,” yells Josh, who has Down’s syndrome, his dad Chas, in bib 1187, pedals past, gripping his aero bars as his Zipp wheels roll over slippery cobblestones at the start of the bike course.

A couple of years ago, Chas was out for a run in the dark, tripped over a frozen molehill and broke a couple of ribs.

The mole was apparently unhurt.

“I know that sounds rather English,” says Liz, laughing. “But it was no joke. It was really painful. But Chas is back and healthy.”

Josh wasn’t even born yet when Liz and Chas last visited Lanzarote more than two decades ago with their eldest son, Jamie, who learned to walk while at Club La Santa, the sport resort that sponsors the island’s Ironman and 70.3 races. La Santa boasts they’re the toughest Ironman events on the planet. Chas and his bike took on the infamous winds that never sleep. Liz hiked to the volcanoes that define the island’s landscape.

It’s the hardest 70.3 race in the world … yet they still come

“It is pretty dramatic,” says Liz. “The fields of lava rock are so different from what we have back home.”

Back home, it’s still winter in Shropshire, and that means grey and rainy. Chas spent long hours in the garage on his bike trainer.

“I don’t go in there much,” says Josh. “That’s dad’s room.”

Lanzarote is about as far from a dank pain cave as you will ever get.

Photo: David Gutnick

There’s lots of pain, of course: you could see it on the faces of the 1,200 athletes as they racked their bikes in T2 after 1,000 metres of climbing in gale-force winds. But the only caves are hidden in the volcanoes. The bike course takes participants on a velvet-smooth highway right through the middle of Timanfaya national park, past the black hardened lava fields left by the active Timanfaya Volcano’s last eruption in 1730.

Ironman 70.3 Lanzarote is a race for people who want to leap into spring, the season on this Spanish archipelago just off the coast of Morocco when farmers are starting to plant onions, garlic and melons, their vegetable patches protected from the constant wind by waist-high stone walls.

At 7 a.m. Saturday, in the Playa Blanca marina when the race starter’s horn sounded, the male pros walked down the boat ramp and into water that was a comfortable 19 C. No whitecaps this year. Age-groupers in their orange and pink caps looked on, relief written on their faces when they realized their swim was going to be more spa than suffering. The 90-km bike ride that follows, while an endurance test like no other, is one of the world’s great bike rides. Cactus and palm trees sprout impossibly out of the igneous rock. Along the coast, huge waves pound the cliffs. A deep blue ocean reflects the sky.

Chas racks his bike, slips on his Ironman visor, and two minutes and 51 seconds later, he’s on the run.

He and the other runners wind through streets lined with restaurants looking out over the marina where glistening white sailboats, catamarans and yachts are moored.

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Chas’s legs were churning, averaging a 5:03 pace — not a frozen molehill in sight.

As he waited for his dad, Josh cheered on those who beat him over the finish line, tapping his feet to the booming DJ mix of “We Are The Champions” and chowing down on a warm Nutella and white-chocolate crepe.

And then suddenly, there was Chas, galloping in, six hours 37 minutes and 34 seconds from the time he waded into the waters of the Playa Blanca marina.

Liz and Josh wrapped their arms around him.

“That wind was a killer,” he says, fiddling with the medal hanging around his sunburned neck. “I was pushing 200 watts and barely moving 17 km/hr. I felt I was going nowhere.”

But he was.

“Race on another planet,” is what the billboard for the Lanzarote 70.3 promises.

Chas did just that and then he finally landed, sweat-stained and hungry.

Photo: David Gutnick

“To tell you the truth, I am a wee bit jealous,” says Liz.

Josh hints he could eat another Nutella and white-chocolate crêpe.

And off on the hunt they go.