From Flames to Finish Line: Reflecting on 20 Years Since My Unforgettable Ironman Amidst Wildfires

Twenty years ago this week marked my inaugural encounter with wildfires. Embarking on a journey from Ontario to Penticton, I was brimming with anticipation for my first-ever Ironman triathlon, set against the backdrop of Penticton's Lake Okanagan. The present-day wildfires in the Kelowna region draw eerie parallels to the Okanagan Mountain Fire of August 2003, an event that forced 27,000 individuals to evacuate their homes. Amidst this turmoil, athletes from around the globe congregated near the shores of Lake Okanagan, determined to confront the arduous trials that the Ironman entails. Our race hung precariously on the brink of cancellation, our year-long preparation and the pursuit of lifelong aspirations close to being extinguished. At the same time, we felt the collective pain of a community that was on the verge of losing everything. 

A cherished scrapbook, lovingly crafted by my sister, serves as a conduit for recollection and gratitude. It brings to life the memories and the profound appreciation I hold for all those who rallied together to materialize our racing dreams. Among the most significant facets of this race was my participation as a representative of Team Diabetes Canada. Having diligently raised over $8500 to contribute to diabetes research, crossing the finish line bore the weight of fulfilling a promise to nearly a hundred donors who had wholeheartedly supported my cause.

Subject: IRONMAN

Date : Thu, 21 Aug 2003 18:50:00 

Hi everyone,

We made it to Penticton!! There is a bit of smoke to deal with. The fire in Kelowna isn't that far away and you can see the smoke billowing above the mountains (we can't actually see the mountains on that side of things, but I heard they're pretty nice). I did an hour and 45 min bike ride today, which was pretty good - I just seem to be getting lots of headaches when I'm out of breath, probably due to the lack of oxygen in the air.

Anyhow, I'm all registered and set to go for Sunday. We have a meeting tonight to discuss the forest fires. As far as I know, the only thing that would cancel the race would be an evacuation order. We might have a few challenges getting out of Penticton, since the fires are surrounding us, but looks like we'll race as planned. Don't forget to log on to on Sunday to check it out.


Our accommodations were perched above the lake, in close proximity to the race launch site. From our vantage point, we observed helicopters transporting massive bambi buckets, brimming with water, as they soared towards nearby zones, contributing to the valiant firefighting endeavors. The juxtaposition was striking—knowing that in a matter of days, we would be racing in the very lake below. 

helicopter with bambi bucket, okanagan mountain fire 2003

The customary pre-race carb-loading dinner unfolded on the Friday evening preceding the Sunday race day. Scores of athletes, accompanied by their families, congregated at the Penticton Convention Center to indulge in a hearty spaghetti feast. Yet, just moments before the meal was to be served, a sudden power outage cast a unique twist on the gathering. Undeterred, we filled our plates and gathered outdoors on the adjacent sports field, where we dined as the sun set, muted by the smoke-tinged skies.

Subject : Ironman is a go!

Date : Sat, 23 Aug 2003 19:51:00

For all of you who have access to email at home, here's the latest update. As of this morning, the race is a go. The swim has now been made into a 2-loop in water course, due to lack of safety personnel in the water (so it has to be a smaller area). The bike remains unchanged. As of last night, a fire had broken out near the course and the highway we will ride on was closed. Firefighters worked very hard to put the blaze under control and the highway was reopened today. Who knows whether there will be smoke in the area or not, but it's early in the ride, in a relatively flat area, so here's hoping it's not too bad.

The run will be a 3-loop course in town. It's to keep the major highways open for emergency personnel and to keep people closer to town in case of emergency. And of course it's great because we'll get to see the spectators 3 times as often!!

We are very fortunate to be having a race at all in this state of emergency. The race directors have been working around the clock to make sure the race goes ahead. So I'll have to make extra sure to really enjoy every single minute of it.

Talk to you all again on Monday!!


We later learned that the race was perilously close to the brink of cancellation and was averted by a fortuitous shift in the wind during the early hours of the night. This change in nature's course allowed us to embark on our swim the following morning, signaled by the resounding boom of a cannon blast. The race video vividly portrays how harrowing the surrounding areas were and how incredibly hard the race crews and emergency personnel worked to make sure we would have a chance to complete the Ironman.

Subject: I am an Ironman!

25 August 2003

Wow! What can I say? I had 3 goals yesterday:

1. To complete Ironman Canada

2. To stay out of the medical tent

3. To finish in under 15 hours.

I accomplished all 3 yesterday and can now say that I am officially an Ironman!! First I just wanted to thank everyone for all of your support - I have received tons of email in the last few days especially and it's great knowing how many people were with me during the race. We are lucky to even have a race after everything that has been going on with the forest fires. I can honestly say I will never do this course again!!

The swim was great for me. I got beat up a lot - but that's to be expected. My goggles even got knocked off, but luckily they stayed on my head. I exited the water in an hour (my goal time was under 1 hr 10min) - I was very happy and felt great. On to transition, which took about 6 minutes, not too bad considering I completely changed outfits.

The bike was challenging. The scenery was beautiful and eerie at the same time. Some of the areas we rode through you could still see the mountains smoldering and taste the smoke. Fortunately, my asthma did not act up - likely because I never really went at a pace where I was really out of breath. I did have some major knee pain at about the halfway point and stopped for some aspirin, which did eventually help. Besides that, my biggest issue was chafing anyone who's ever ridden with me will know that that's one of my biggest problems on the bike!! The mountains were tough- 2 very long climbs - but the downhills were lots of fun!! I finished in just over 7hr 30min, with 7hr 15 min of riding time, for an average speed of 24.5km/hr (my goal exactly). Another 6 minute transition and I was off on the marathon.

The first part of the marathon was great - but a 3 loop course can be good and bad at the same time. As I got hotter, things were tougher and I slowed down. But I maintained my race plan which was to run to each aid/water station and walk the stations. There was so much stuff at the stations: water, gatorade, pepsi, chicken broth (could only stomach a sip), fruit, cookies, pretzels and sponges. By the 3rd lap, the sun had gone down and I was getting stronger (I even negatively split my marathon). I caught up to Lee-Anne (she is my best friend and we'd trained together for this race) with about 5 km to go. We decided that we would finish together - what an awesome way to end our Ironman journey. We pushed each other to the end and crossed the line together at 14:03 (beating my goal time by about an hour). We hugged and cried as soon as we were done. It was amazing to finish together. We had always hoped that it might work out that way and are so happy that it did.

Today, I feel great (considering!!) - I'm really really hungry and my knees are very sore, and my toes have lots of blisters, but besides that, things are good. Mike Cooper (he was a local training partner who also raised funds for Team Diabetes Canada) had a great race and he finished strong in about 13 hrs. What a great day for everyone. We are all so proud of each other for finishing strong!! Tomorrow we are off to Vancouver Island. I won't have access to email after tonight. Thank-you again for all of your support, I couldn't have done it without you.


My first visit to Vancouver Island was a new and exciting experience. Back then, I could never have guessed that this beautiful island would become my family's home. While the threat of wildfires looms over the next few months, it's a risk we accept living in this part of Canada. I remind myself daily of our choice by spending time by the ocean and making sure I never take it for granted.

photo credit: Wally Roth, August 2023

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1 comment

  • Ok you made me cry. I used to run, one marathon and numerous half and I miss it, especially the feeling I got at the end crossing the finish line with people cheering and family and friends to hug! Great blog post Julie 😍


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