The alarm went off at 4:15am. Everything was laid out, so he wouldn’t have to think. Jason Labonte, an accountant from Edmonton in his early 40s, drank a coffee, mixed up his protein fruit almond milk smoothie, and made his way to the shuttle. He arrived at the Alta Lake beach about 5:45am – with an hour up his sleeve, as intended. “I had a schedule I’d been following for the whole week, just to take the guesswork out of things.” Everything was going according to plan.
It was his first Ironman, and he’d been preparing for it for over a year. Last year, he volunteered – at the beach, catching people in the finisher’s chute. A friend had recommended it as the best way to get the feel of the event. “I signed up the next day.” Since January, he’d been logging five training sessions a week. He was hoping to post a 12 hour race.
“The day started off perfectly,” he says. “I said goodbye to my girlfriend and did a practice swim, and then I took my goggles off and spun around in the water, and stared at the mist and the mountains and choked up a little, thinking about what a long way it had been to get here.”
A Chief Financial Officer, Labonte is methodical for a living, and “fairly competitive in most parts of my life.” He came out of the water 13th in his age category. His game-plan was to spin, slow and steady, and for 143 km, he was on pace, his legs surprisingly fresh. “Out on the flats along Pemberton Meadows, it started to get hot. I kept reminding myself: it’s just a training run, don’t get worked up when the fast guys pass you on their fancy bikes.” His girlfriend based herself in Whistler and tracked his progress online – he was consistently about 30th in his age group.
And suddenly, he fell of the radar. She stopped getting updates. His ranking began to drop. He was getting passed. Something had happened.
Around 11:30am, after the first rider had left Pemberton and begun climbing back to Whistler, Troy Rozsypalek, Jamal Hasan, Joe Davies and Jack Hartman pedaled their commuter bikes, folding chairs, water, snacks, a blow horn, and speakers, to the edge of town, to set up a cheering station at the base of the hill, on the shoulder of the highway across from One Mile Lake. For the athletes, it might be one of the loneliest places on the whole course. Nobody else was around.
It was 16 year old Rozsypalek’s first experience watching Ironman – summer’s are busy for the local high school student and he hadn’t been in town before. Hasan was home for the summer from boarding school. 13 year old Hartman had volunteered for the 2 previous events – he was happy to just be a spectator this year. “It was pretty crazy how many people would move over and put their hand down while they were biking to give you a high-five,” says Rozsypalek.
From their perch on the hillside, they saw a rider stop, get off his bike. “We thought, okay, if he hasn’t left there in 30 seconds, we’ll just walk down there and see what’s up,” says Hasan.
“I came out of Pemberton to the first part of the climb and I was switching gears and then the chain went clunkclunkclunk,” says Labonte.
His hanger was broken – the derailleur was bent into his spokes.
“My bike was broken,” says Labonte. “This wasn’t a flat tire. I could fix that. I had 37km to go. I was at 143km. I was on the side of this hill. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then these kids come running down.”
Hasan, Rozsypalek, Davies and Hartman ride together. “It’s a pretty small town,” says Rozsypalek. “You kind of know every kid who bikes in Pemberton,” adds Hasan.
“They started looking at the situation and I could tell they knew bikes,” says Labonte.
Hartman suggested taking the derailleur off, shortening the chain, so he could ride up in one gear. “It took us a while to figure out doing that,” says Hasan. “I was kind of scared, because those are expensive bikes,” says Rozsypalek. But the other option, as Rozsypalek says, was simple: “don’t finish.”
And Labonte wasn’t even contemplating that. His brain had been processing options before they’d run down towards him – carry his bike? Take his cleats off and run up the hill?
The course mechanic was nowhere to be seen. The motorcyclist carrying the event videographer had pulled over to help but they didn’t have the mechanic’s number.
“I think that’s the only chance I have,” said Labonte.
He gave Rozsypalek his cell number. “You guys have been lifesavers. Text me later so I can say thanks.”
“You’re going to finish the race?”
“Damn right I’m going to finish.”
Labonte pedaled up to Whistler, in one gear, standing up the entire way. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The brand new pavement radiated heat. He’d lost half an hour, maybe more, dealing with the mechanical. Hs nutrition plan was all off. “I just focussed on the crest of each hill. Pushing my legs like that was not part of the plan.”
The event bike mechanic found him later, but by that point there was nothing he could do to help. “You’re going to make it in?” he asked.
“Yes,” insisted Labonte.
The mechanic just shook his head. “You’re bad-ass.”
At 9pm, he crossed the finish line. An Ironman. His legs had been toast for the entire run, but it didn’t matter. “I was elated. I didn’t get my time, but I got a good story.”
On his way out of town, heading back to Alberta, Labonte and his girlfriend made a stop in Pemberton, to meet up with Rozsypalek, Hasan, Hartman and Davies. Driving down the killer hills, his girlfriend was in tears, imagining Labonte standing up and grinding that busted-up, single gear, bent wheeled bike up the mountainsides.
He showed the boys his medal. “They helped me make my dream come true. I said that to them, and I kind of got choked up.” Labonte snapped a photo, drove to the Okanagan for a week of lakeside decompression with his girlfriend and his parents, and began thinking about the possibility of treating himself to a new bike.
As for the boys, they’ve been riding almost every day since, and shrug modestly at the attention: It’s what anyone would do. “We were happy to help.”