Ironman Australia 2008 - Race Report
We arrived in Port Macquarie on the Wednesday before the race. Staying with me this time were my parents, sister, brother-in-law and my wife. We had an apartment out at Flynns Beach, which was close enough to town, but far enough to feel removed from all the race hype. This year, I only attended the compulsory registrations, and briefing. This had me feeling very relaxed leading into race day.
The clock said 03:51. Four minutes before my alarm was due to sound. A good start to race morning. The coffee was soon brewed and I enjoyed my morning breakfast. I poked my head outside to check the weather. Rain. Not just a light shower. This was a heavy downpour that only became heavier when we hopped in the car to drive down to race start. The walk from the car park was through mud and ankle deep puddles. I was hoping it would clear up soon enough.
The rain continued all through check in, while I inflated my tires and checked my bike. I even had to dry off before getting into my wetsuit. Yes, I did see the irony in this at the time too. However, when it was time to walk down to the swim start, the sky cleared up. The rain stopped, the sun appeared and a full rainbow spread across the sky.
Neoprene clad bodies were guided like cattle over the timing mat to register we were in the water. The colour coding of swim caps seemed to work reasonably well to help guide everyone with their self seeding. I floated around waiting for the start. I could hear that music was playing, and I think Mike Reilly was giving some sort of pep talk, but it was too hard to hear. All of a sudden every one appeared to be taken by surprise. The starter's gun had sounded.
There is a lot less space when some 1500+ athletes who had been floating vertically in the water suddenly all go horizontal. The sound was amazing as the washing machine began its heavy duty cycle. It was the expected rough start. Arms and legs were every where. Some struggled to swim in the correct direction. Other's simply tried to occupy the same space as another. Some panicked and grabbed hold of anything they could hold onto.
The first 50m was a mess, but this day I was enjoying it. For a short moment I started to get caught up in the angst of the start. Luckily I had the the words, smooth, calm & assertive firmly etched into my mind. Soon enough I had found a smooth and assertive rhythm. This gave me a little extra space. Of course there were plenty of interruptions, but for the rest of the swim they never really bothered me. Soon enough the swim became almost relaxing. Almost.
The swim developed a rhythm of its own. Between the turns everyone gradually spread out and I felt like I was back in the pool. Then at each turn everyone converged on each other. People stopped to site their line, performed breaststroke to keep their head above water or simply powered around buoy. It was chaos all travelling in the same direction.
The first long straight of the second lap was interesting. I took the inside of the turn and accelerated out, focusing on maintaining a stronger pace. I sited up in front of me and found I could clearly see the two large yellow buoys in the distance directly in front of me. To emphasise I was in the correct line I could also make out the small orange markers between them. It certainly looked like I had everything lined up perfectly. The problem was that the rest of the field were off to my left and swimming on a slight angle away from me. I still thought I had it right, but doubt had crept in. So I swam quite a few polo strokes to make sure I was on track, and I was. Continuing to swim along the buoy line I found the field close in from the left at the next turn. I'm curious to see the aerial footage of the swim to see if a good portion swam wide that second lap.
Soon enough I found myself lining up the exit ramp. I was still feeling good, but resisted the urge to hammer over the last 200m. Onto dry land the legs took a few steps to wake up.
With no trouble finding my bag I was soon into the change tent. Wow, talk about crowded. I squeezed my way through to find a seat and realised I dizzy. This seemed to affect my coordination and I had a little bit of trouble getting my wetsuit off my legs. No real issue as my body soon caught up with the fact it was no longer horizontal.
Powerbars and gels in jersey pocket.
Sunglasses in hand.
Now my legs were working. I made it to my bike without a problem.
The rain had started again, but it was light enough. I built up the momentum, found some clear road in the crowd and slipped my feet into the bike shoes. Round the first few corners, and onto the first hill. Plenty of bikes flashed past me. Some at ridiculous speeds. I wanted to go with them, but I had a plan.
At this stage my heart rate was bouncing around all over the shop. My answer was to back off on the main climb out of town. No matter how slow I felt, I decided this whole climb had to feel very easy. Easy it was and the numbers on my watch seemed to gradually settle down by the time I reached the top. Initially I was looking forward to the descent down Davis Crescent. Unfortunately the volume of riders meant there wasn't really any chance to open up. The tight corners were ridden down on the brakes for fear of what those in front would do.
The southern part of the course was a mixture of flat and undulating terrain. It all started to blur into one. My mind became quiet as I was consumed in the rhythm of the ride. I felt almost detached from my body. Yes I was still aware of the mechanics such as heart rate, perceived exertion, feel of the pedals, time of feedings, but this was all part of a well rehearsed pattern. It was close to automatic.
Soon enough I found myself at the steep climb up Matthew Flinders Dr and Davis Cr. Gearing all the way down, and standing up on the pedals, the legs spun nicely. The hill didn't seem to live up to all the pre-race hype. It was very similar to the hills back home. Mind you the crowd of spectators along the climb, cheering at the tops of their voices definitely helped. Once over the crest, you are then rewarded with a couple of good downhill stretches back into town to finish up the first of the three 60km laps.
Lap two was simply a continuation on the pattern established through the first lap. The key difference was that my concentration was on keeping on moving at my current pace, instead of holding back. While the race wasn't hurting too much, I realised I was travelling significantly slower than I had hoped pre-race. Out on the back end of this lap I had a few moments of struggle with my thought processes in regard to this.
Onto the third and final lap. This is where good points of my training started to show up.
Aches and pains were spreading throughout my body. Hot spots in my feet, left calf, lower back and groin progressively got worse. My body wanted to sit up and coast through the last part of the ride, or simply dig in and hammer just to get it over and done with. This is what I had trained for. Keep aero, turn those cranks and ride strong. It took a lot of mental work to keep it all on track.
Eventually the finish chute of the bike was in site. For a few seconds I was disappointed with being a good half hour slower than first anticipated. What I didn't know at the time was that I had managed a consistent 2 minute negative split for each 60km lap, with heart rate averages of 142, 140 and 140bpm respectively. In the end I had managed to make the best of my fitness on the bike, while leaving enough for the run.
The mechanics of dismounting, bag pick up, socks, shoes, number belt and hat were all second nature. The real work was getting my head into the right space. There was no point in dwelling on my overall time. Yes it looked like a personal best was falling out of reach, but focusing on that fact would push it further away.
On my feet. While someone smothered my neck and shoulders with sunscreen I caught onto a phrase from my initial training at work. Pause and plan. In those few seconds I took a deep breath, thanked the volunteers and started moving out. All my attachment to time fell away. All my worry disappeared. My mind was clear. Then I found only one key thought. Rhythm.
The first part of the run is an out and back loop to Settlement Point. This section is flat and is perfect for getting those running legs into action. Not that this was much of an issue. Yes, there were quite a few reminders about the work done so far, coming from various sources of my body. At this stage my running legs just seemed grateful to be finally running.
I hit a good, comfortable rhythm within the first few strides. My breathing was calm, my heart rate was good. It felt a little too easy. After the first few kilometres I noticed I was running sub 5:00/km. This wasn't going to be sustainable. Sticking to my race plan I slowed down.
Back through the crowds the run then heads out for a different loop along the beach path and includes some descent hills. The two loops make for one lap of about 14km. Naturally there are three of these to make the full distance. My family had positioned themselves at the base of the hills. A good place to see me smiling heading in to them, and hurting coming back out. For the first lap the hills felt almost like a solid training session.
Coming off the hills I noticed the beginning of that deep pain inside my legs. That pain I have only ever experienced in an Ironman race. It was only a mild version at this stage. In fact it almost felt good. It let me know I working through a challenge.
One lap down. Still feeling pretty good, but my pace had slowed noticeably. My nutrition and hydration still appeared to be on track. The slowing seemed to be a result of accumulated fatigue. It was simply taking more effort to keep the legs moving along.
The second lap had me maintaining my current speed. Yet each kilometre became more and more difficult. That deep, Ironman style pain dug into my bones and seemed to also surround my legs. The effort required to continue increased exponentially. However, I never had the urge to slow to a walk or simply stop. I concentrated on my form. Run tall. Run light. Relax the back and shoulder. Keep it together. Keep the nutrition coming in. Strangely the hills didn't feel any harder than the flats. They were just as hard as each other.
The shadows were starting to lengthen as I completed the second lap and headed out onto the final circuit. About 14km left and suddenly I felt exceptional good. All the pain was there, but the cloud of fatigue had lifted.
This is no longer a training run!
Whatever it takes!
The leg speed returned and I decided to make the most of it. It felt good passing so many people. There was lightness in my step. My run felt silent. The pain now acted to fuel each step.
Then it hit me without warning. It was somewhere around the 31km mark. Today there weren't the usual lead up signs of lightheadedness, significant, but gradual reduction in strength, or any of the other vague symptoms. Today I hit the wall without realising it was in front of me. It was sudden and dramatic. Going from a nice smooth running stride and in less than one step having every atom of strength sucked out of me. Not only was running now impossible, but there was such a strong urge to curl up and go to sleep on the side of the road.
Movement forward took the form of a disjointed race walking technique. A few minutes later I had reached the next aid station. I needed refueling, but the thought of Gatorade, jellybeans or Powerbars had me wanting to bring up whatever was left in my stomach. Two cups of flat cola went down in an unsettling way, but more was needed. I scanned the food table. At first I thought some bananas would have to do, as I picked up the first one I spotted the real solution. Vegemite Sandwiches. For some reason they appealed to me like nothing else. They were just so easy to eat.
The walk gradually turned into a shuffle by the next aid station where I got in some more cola and water. Soon enough that shuffle turned into a run. Only about 7 or 8km left. With that thought I dug in and forced my body to run fast (which is a relative term at this stage). Every part of me now hurt, even my elbows (exactly why I don't know). Each step felt like I was tearing apart the muscles in my legs, but this is what makes the difference between a good day and bad one. To make it a good day I pushed through.
Surprisingly I still had a reasonable amount of agility to weave my way around other athletes. It was a bit of an obstacle course with people not only travelling at different speeds, but common to sudden stops or swerving at random across the road. The long day was showing on everyone.
A volunteer handed me a couple of glow sticks. The disappointment, while short lived, hit me hard as I pinned them to my jersey. It was a reminder today was taking longer than hoped. Soon enough I was back in the amongst the crowds. The noise seemed to drown out all negative thoughts. A few comments of surprise from the sides about how quickly I was running spurred me on. I lifted again and this time I knew I would hold it to the end.
It was now the last time in the hills. This time they hurt like I couldn't have imagined. On one of the ascent my calves started cramping, a brief change to a kind of power walk sorted that out. Over each crest I pushed beyond my usual controlled fall. Each stride I pushed hard, increasing the speed of my descent. In the end I think I was just lucky not to fall flat on my face.
The next couple of kilometres I can't really remember. All I know for sure is that I made good progress. Soon enough I was insight of the finishing chute. Time wasn't important anymore. This year I was going to make the most the finish. On hitting the blue carpet I slowed down and took my time. High fiving some random kids on the sidelines. I spotted my wife and stole a kiss. Finally I crossed the finish line.
The months of preparation and effort required during the day had been worth it. There is nothing like the feeling of completing an Ironman.