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What Does it Take to Win Ultraman Canada?


Iona MacKenzie  winning Ultraman Canada 2013.
Iona MacKenzie winning Ultraman Canada 2013.


How tough is Ultraman Canada 2013 winner Iona MacKenzie? So tough that for years she trained for Ironman on the chip seal roads in the sub-arctic cold of Yellowknife. She did so in the early morning darkness before starting work in the Ekati Diamond mine where she was the maintenance superintendent, flying in for four days a week. Now living in Edmonton, the engineering manager is back on a normal work schedule. Thankful for being able to hit a pool every day, Mackenzie’s more stable training paid off at last year’s Ultraman Canada where she won the three-day,  514.5 kilometre race in a time of 30:15:38. Here’s her interview with TMC’s Suzanne Zelazo.

TMC: How many ultra races had you done before? How did this compare?

Iona MacKenzie: I have done 12 ironman distance races, three expedition adventure races, one Ultraman race, one 24-hour triathlon and a few 24-48 hour adventure races.  However, most of these races occurred before I moved up to northern Canada.  This race seemed tougher to me than Ultraman Hawaii, which I raced in 2007 (although I hear Ultraman Hawaii was exceptionally brutal in 2013, due to high winds and rain).

TMC: How did you prepare, and how different was that prep from regular Ironman training? Did you work with a coach?

IM: Scott Molina gave me some training plans over the year prior that helped work around the fact that I lived four days a week at a remote diamond mining camp for all of 2012, and otherwise had limited access to pools and snow-less pavement. I’ve changed my job three times in the last three years and my city twice – so, he kept the training to the bare essentials to keep things manageable, on top of all of the life change.  I joined a triathlon group that trains at Edmonton MacEwan University and this got me back in the pool regularly. It was a lot like Ironman training, except I did quite a few 5 km swims and a couple super-long bike rides. I had done some 50 km and 50 mile running races in the winter.  I certainly didn’t arrive over-trained.


MacKenzie training in Yellowknife.
MacKenzie training in Yellowknife.

TMC: What was the hardest part of the race?

IM: Day two of Ultraman Canada felt harder than Day two of Ultraman Hawaii because that is that day where you end up with a net elevation gain.  There was quite a steep climb called “The Wall” after the first 100 km of the bike course where I had to commit to putting force on the pedals just to keep myself moving forward.  My stomach turned and I never got it back for the rest of the race.   I didn’t want to eat or drink anything, even in between stages.  It set me up for a lot of suffering on Day three’s double marathon.

TMC: I know you experience seasickness in the water, how did you work through that for 10 km?

IM: I discovered the powers of high doses of ginger this year after watching a Mythbusters episode about seasickness.  I now take several of the Gravol Ginger tablets before open water swimming, which has helped quite a bit.  Having said that, I did start to feel quite nauseous at the end of the 10 km swim. I had been mentally preparing for much worse, so I was happy with just 30 minutes of it!

TMC: At what point did you know you were winning?

IM: I knew that the other women were very accomplished ultra-runners, so it wasn’t until near the very end that I even entertained thoughts of winning.  I went into Day three with something like an hour and twenty minutes lead, which isn’t much when you are moving onto a double marathon in a depleted state against runner chicks.  I lost over half of that lead after the first marathon, but somehow managed to just keep moving steadily, fading relatively less during the second marathon. It wasn’t pretty.  It was much hillier than I had expected, and, for me, quite hot.  My heat tolerance has decreased quite a bit after three years in the sub-arctic.

TMC: What is your nutrition like during the race? How did you execute getting in enough fuel?

IM: The severe nausea I experienced at Ultraman Hawaii in 2007 permanently ruined most race food for me. I rely heavily on extremely large breakfasts with lots of coffee, followed by a lot of gels, liquid calories, cola, salt pills, and things I can force down. I didn’t get enough fuel during days two and three. My friend Melanie had to force calories on me. I finished the race on the fumes.

TMC: How big was your crew?

IM:I had two friends from Yellowknife crew me, plus a volunteer who assisted on the kayak. We had done RAAM as an eight-person team the year before, so they knew what is involved in multi-day ultra events.

TMC: Ultraman is contentious. Detractors would say it’s a race for those who are not fast enough to race well at the Iron distance. Others think it’s an incredible feat and a way to challenge the body like no other format in the sport. What do you think?

IM: Certainly, it is a smaller pool of athletes in a sport that offers no professional prize money – so one doesn’t get the same distribution of athletes as in Ironman. However, just as a successful Olympic distance athlete doesn’t necessarily do as well in Ironman races, a faster Ironman athlete might not do as relatively well at Ultraman. This year, Hillary Biscay was second overall at Ultraman Hawaii, after some very brutal cycling conditions. She posted a 7:23 double marathon.  I suspect that she could still stack up favorably compared to some of her other professional Ironman peers for the same mental and physiological reasons that she is able to race so many Ironman races every year.

TMC: With a capped entry of 30 athletes (by invitation), how does the small race feel compare to a typical Ironman of which you’ve done 12.

IM: The Ultra community – be it ultra-running, ultra-cycling or ultra-triathlon – is just that: a community.  There are some type A people, but, for the most part, it is a very supportive, extremely fun environment where everyone cheers one another on.  Maybe it’s because people are so blissed out on endorphins so much of the time!  The Ultraman races are based on the guiding principles of “aloha” (love), “ohana” (family), and “kokua” (help). Most of the athletes continue to stay in touch after the race, and many participants come back year after year.

TMC: I’ve trained with you in Kona and I know how mentally and physically tough you are, but what do you think is the single most important attribute an athlete must develop to succeed at the ultra distance?

IM: You have to be humble and respect the distance. I think it works against an ultra-athlete who tries to be in control of everything.  Even in Ironman races, I find that I have to work myself out of about three really low points each race. The longer the race, the lower and more frequent those low spots are.  I am personally not very prone to injury or illness, so that is helpful for long distance.  I think that fatigue resistance (both mental and physical) is important.

TMC: Congrats on an outstanding accomplishment! We will be following you in 2014.