|Ironman Busselton 2009|
It was more than a year ago since I first entertained the thought of qualifying for the Ironman World Championship in Kona Hawaii, and; now with so many miles ; hours of training, of dreaming, preparing ; focusing, the race is done and dusted.
Relegated from the realms of incredible challenge, with all the anticipation and expectation that goes with such an endeavour, it now rests comfortably alongside the catalogs of wonderful experiences & memories that adorn the shelves of my mental library…& what an incredible experience it was.
It was every bit the experience that those who had been fortunate enough to race before me said it would be…& more. The toughest and most prestigious single day endurance race on the planet - The Ironman World Championship, and I was smack in the middle of it. It was hard not to feel privileged…even harder not to smile.
Landing in Kona a full 8 days out from race start, proved to be a fortuitous move. It enabled me to partake the morning following arrival in a two and a half day training / prep camp hosted by Lifesport coaching ‘Legends’ Lance Watson and Paul Regensburg. Between them they have coached multiple Ironman victories, Olympic, Commonwealth and Pan Am games gold medalist, as well as many other high profile victories and champions. With 16 athletes from 8 countries, the camp provided for some instant friendships and some inspiring personal stories. It afforded me not only the practical knowledge to take on the course, but more importantly re-defined my entire mental approach to IM racing. This psychological revamp / upgrade is something I will forever carry with me & apply to every race of any nature and to life in general. In short, at US $ 517, it was money well spent.
The week leading up to race start as expected was full of anticipation and excitement. So many incredible athletes from more than 80 countries filled the streets. Despite the training I had done and the condition I was in, I couldn’t help but feel inferior to all the ‘Super Athletes’ that constantly ran and cycled their way around Kona. Tens of thousands of dollars of the best equipment money can buy, every helmet an Aero, every athlete seemingly sponsored. This was like no other IM. I knew exactly where I was.
Other than a 14km run, 94km ride and one and a half hours swim training during the camp, I only managed / chose to ride one more 80km ride, 5km jog and 3 by 30min swim sessions in the five days prior to the race. Despite the hours we spent on our feet, exploring the beautiful town of Kona…I was well rested. My new found approach was paying dividends. The butterflies were well at ease, I was focused but calm and; most importantly I was excited and; eager to race.
A 3.30am start heralded what would be a long, hard & memorable day. Breakfast straight away then down to the start line for the 4.45am check in ; body marking. There were people everywhere by race start. Thousands of people clambered for every vantage point imaginable. Along the vast sea wall that paralleled the 2km out & back length of the swim course, every tree, pole, tower & balcony was filled to bursting. It was an amazing site. At 7.00am sharp, a cannon fired, marking the official start, and in a frenzy of flailing arms and twisting bodies, we were under way.
My first mission which I chose to accept, was to survive. To not take in too much water, prevent as much as possible any contact with the goggles, minimize damage through physical contact, watches, nails, kicking feet etc, all the while attempting to move forward as fast as possible. Being a non wetsuit swim, my times were always going to be a bit slower. This being said however, with more weekly miles in the pool and; another year of swimming behind me, I was quietly hoping for something around the 1hr-1hr 3min mark. I exited the water in 1hr 6min 37sec. I was behind the eight ball already.
Reflecting on my swim there was much I did wrong. Most importantly I broke the cardinal rule and tried something new on race day. Talking to people before I left and then having these same conversations re-enforced at the training camp, I departed from my usual plan of finding my own water / space and attempted instead to find peoples feet. This swimming in the ‘Jet Stream’ has proven energy saving properties – energy that can be spent later on the bike / run or re-invested immediately into increased effort on the swim.
Two days out from race day I met with the Lifesport coaching staff at the expo, where one of their leading swim coaches worked with me for more than half an hour on my technique in a small jet forced training pool with underwater video analysis. It was an invaluable session that I’m looking forward to implementing on my return to the pool and; training. Stupidly though, after feeling comfortable with it after one more short swim session, I decided to apply it for my race. Looking back I wonder what the hell I was thinking. All those sessions, all those km’s in the pool and then to do away with it on race day for a new technique…Well, what can I say, approx 600th out of the water – ‘Madness’.
In tact and after a pretty slow transition by my standards (3min 33sec) it was off for the ride. Controlling the urge to go out too hard early amidst the cheering and hype of the crowds was my first short term goal. Settle in, enjoy the experience and then once out of the throng and; onto the long lonely stretches of the Queen K it would be ‘Balls Out’.
The ride out to the turnaround at Hawi was encouraging. Here I was, a cyclist of no real note in amongst so many strong riders and all I did was continuously reel them in. One after the other, relentlessly for the entire course. My hill riding is strong and consequently where I inflicted the most damage. There were quite a few riders that overtook me, but inevitably I not only reeled them back in but managed to leave them behind. Once down from the 11km climb to Hawi and; back on the Queen K we were unfortunately greeted by a steady head wind which did not abate for the remaining 70 or so km’s back into Kona. Whilst not a howling headwind, it did require sustained hard work. At this point of the ride it proved a good test and no doubt a telling point where prior experience on this course could have prepared you better as the question how best to tackle that last 70km’s weighed in against the impending marathon. I however, buoyed on by my vast move up the field and my knowledge that my run is my strength, decided to keep working hard into it. It seemed wrong to back off when I was feeling quite good. I had stuck regimentally to my hydration / nutrition plan & it was paying dividends. Into transition in 5hr 6min flat at an average speed of 35.7kph. On that course, in those conditions and on a road bike – I was happy. Had we a tail wind or it not been a head wind for that last 70km’s, I would have gone well under 5hrs which is where I feel I’m at with my IM bike leg. I came off the bike in 199th position overall. I had managed to peg back some 400 places. A 2min 22sec transition and it was time to really go to work.
The first 19km’s or so are through town and; the beautiful tree & hotel lined Alii Dve. The primary goal again was to refrain from getting caught up in the incredible atmosphere and going out too hard. Any thoughts I may have entertained of going sub 9 hrs had well and truly faded – my focus now, to have a solid run and; hopefully finish with a respectable time of somewhere around 9.15 – 9.20. The run leg of an IM always finds the spectators at their most vocal. They know it is the leg that the athletes require the most encouragement ; in Kona, this was no exception. There were people lining the entire 19km’s stretch and with Aussie flags aplenty, it made the early stages of the marathon pretty enjoyable. It is a shame this environment doesn’t exist along the final 19km stretch through what are the extremely long, hot & lonely sections of the Queen K Hwy and The Natural Energy Lab.
By the time I had commenced running (approx 1.00pm) the temperature was well & truly up. Typical days of 85-87deg F, were instead replaced with 95-105 deg F temps’ and nowhere a cloud to offer even temporary respite. Hot temperatures are the expectation of every athlete who comes to race in Kona and; as such these conditions presented no additional challenges. As far as one’s hydration and nutritional strategies went, it was a case of situation normal regarding what was required to finish the race and hopefully avoid any medical intervention in the process. But hot is hot – it takes it’s toll and if you’ve been unfortunate enough to lob on the door of Kona off the back of a prolonged cold wet winter like myself and I’m sure many others, then this was always going to be a tough ask.
The point where I usually find my rhythm in the run leg i.e. approx the 6-8km, never came. Although maintaining just on 3hr marathon pace for the first 20km’s, I never fell into a comfortable rhythm. In fact the opposite was the case. My condition deteriorated markedly and despite a dedicated regime of cooling sponges and ice, gels, Gatorade and even cola for the sugar kick, I was unable to climb out of what had become one of the toughest 16km’s of running I have ever done. The battle to ward of the demons of negativity was being waged and; even a Red Bull in my special needs bag at the turnaround at The Natural Energy Lab failed to provide me with the lift I had been so desperately searching for, for the past hour. Instead I began to find myself on the receiving end of an unfamiliar experience. I was being overtaken in increasing numbers. There wasn’t much I could do about it however, and instead reminded myself again where I was – surrounded by so many incredible athletes. I marveled at their strength and ability and quietly vowed to look at alternative ways to improve my running.
Those testing last 10-12k’s out on the Queen K, I will never forget. The bulk of the work was done of course and the faint wisps of the finish line aroma were starting to find their way into my nostrils, buoying me on through the final stages. I have always been a strong finisher and whilst that possibility had earlier appeared a non-event, it did come. With approximately 4-5km’s to go I found a little something and managed to slowly reel back in a large number of those runners who had earlier passed me, reminding myself in the process of an often heard statement about the changing tides of fortune in a race like the Hawaii IM. You are never out of it. Just when you thought you were having a shitty day and; Joe Bloggs is kicking your ass, you find your wind and; Joe stumbles and; falls into one of the many physical and mental holes that pepper this course throughout it’s length.
I was fortunate to not have to share my space in the final chute & in that last 400m to the finish line was really conscious of soaking up the incredible atmosphere. As with every IM race, the finish is special, but Kona truly does stand alone. It was so nice having Sonja (my wife) there to share in the experience. I couldn’t imagine the hollowness of not having someone who you love and; who loves and supports you through all the crap, not there to squeeze and hold at the end of it all.
With no real time goals going into the race, I still managed to achieve everything else I had set for myself. I finished, I smiled, I had fun, I salvaged what I thought may be a significant time blowout in my run, to still finish in a respectable time, managing also to pick up a further 74 places in the process, and I left nothing out on that course. When I had crossed that line, I did so with zero credit in the bank or to use another analogy. If my energy levels at the start of the race could be likened to a full box of matches, then I lit and burned the very last match of the box running down the finishing chute.
It was tough, no two ways about it and that’s what makes IM racing so great. ’Nothing worthwhile in life comes easy’, a favorite saying of mine and the 9hrs 34min 39 sec I spent out there in the heat and the wind of this epic race stands testament to the incredible personal reward one gets from ‘Not doing it easy’.
In closing, there were approx 1830 starters, 134 of which were pros and 259 athletes in my age division (35-39 male) the highest represented age group of the race. Out of 1685 finishers, I placed 125th overall, 69th age grouper and; 22nd in my age group. Whilst I am not disappointed with my effort, on a deeper level as I dissect my race – I am disappointed with my run. What is always my strength was today my weakness. Had I run a typical split for the marathon I would have placed considerably higher up the rankings and been up there with the very best of them…age groupers that is. As to the reason why my run failed me – I can find no reason. Perhaps I pushed a little too hard on the bike, though I don’t believe this to be the case. I just keep thinking that it must have been the heat / humidity and that perhaps my body just wasn’t conditioned at this stage to running in those conditions…But that’s IM racing. The perfect race is only a race away ; with Busselton IM just around the corner, I’m counting on this one being true.