Five years in the sport of Triathlon and I never had a desire to compete in an Ironman. It was not until I had the opportunity to train with a dedicated and talented group of people in the Blackfins squad that things changed. Watching these friends train for an Ironman, then qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona was fantastic. It was following them online as they competed in Hawaii though, that inspired me. I had finally seen what almost all others in our sport see, and I thought – Yep, I want to go to Kona.
At the time I was training for the ITU Short Course World Championships, so based on timing, the next available race that would be suitable was Ironman Melbourne. As this was the Asia Pacific Championships there were an extra 3 qualifying spots, but it also tended to attract a higher calibre of athlete, was it a good choice? Thankfully some other squad members were also considering this race, so I knew I would have some great people to spend the next 5 months of my life with!
After entering, I was immediately honest with myself and with Super-coach Mike Gee. I know I have never done an Ironman before, but I wanted to qualify on debut. Everyone I spoke with talked about taking your first one easy, just experience it and finish the race. I would nod and smile politely, saying that of course is the case, but inside I wanted more. The commitment and sacrifice that the training started to demand needed more. To drag myself away from my wife, Libby, and my family and to constantly tell my friends I can’t go out due to training was hard. I really believe you need to aim high, as easy goals will not be enough to make you keep swimming laps after everyone else has left, or to keep doing hill repeat after hill repeat for several hours straight. The core group of 6: Ann, Dean, Kevin, Jeremy and Johnny, that trained together for this soon learnt that Kona was the goal, and it was a shared desire for most of us.
There are so many ups and downs during a training program like this. The biggest down was the withdrawal of Johnny from the race due to injury, an injury that may have been preventable by me. Finding out he was withdrawing was like being kicked in the gut.
I tend to keep my feelings fairly close to my chest, and in the final lead-up to the race I knew I was in great form. I had no major injuries, no major interruptions to training and no reason to not be confident. But it is the self-doubt that plagues so many of us that does get expressed, and rather than the confidence, it was the self-doubt that most people would have seen. In reality, a qualification spot was still an extremely unlikely event. But I was not going to do all this training, and fly all that way, not to try.
Race morning finally arrived, and as usual, Libby was my pillar. She holds me up when everything else is crumbling, and that day was no exception. As I made my way to the start line Mike runs after me and tells me that even though I have never done an Ironman, I am an experienced and talented triathlete and I need to race with my instincts.
The rolling start and the weather conditions made for a great swim. I was comfortably onto the bike in under an hour, exactly as I had hoped. I settled into a small group for the first 10k of the bike, but that’s when Mike’s advice came into play. I was feeling great so I ignored my power and moved through the field, jumping from group to group for the entire first 80k. It was going to be a good day.
In every long training session, it was about the 110k point at which things got very tough mentally. Race day was no exception. I lost my pacing partner Kevin whilst heading into the headwind on the third portion of the bike and although the rational part of my mind was telling me everything was still going well, the irrational part was telling me the race was over because I had pushed too hard in the first half. A quick sideline update from Libby telling me I had moved from almost 40th position into 23rd position, then having Dean give some of his patented positive reinforcement as he cruised past, turned things around, and the last 40k was mentally and physically easy.
My naïve self actually believed that I would start the run at my goal pace of 4.25 to 4.30 min/km, and then pick that up after the 30k mark. Haha!
Things were going perfectly to plan for me for the first 25k. The same could not be said for the other guys in the squad, whom were having difficulty on the first half. The deceptively long hills and fairly stiff headwind were taking its toll, and by the 25k point I had moved up into approximately 12th position, keeping pace like a metronome. The rolling start made precise positions difficult to calculate.
At 25k the previous 8 hours all hit me at once. I had broken. Libby began to run with me shortly after this point and I couldn’t handle her support. I know it sounds strange and horrible but her support, unconditional love and belief in me were just too much at that point and I had to tell her to leave, as I stumbled on, tears uncontrollably streaming down my face and my body wracked with sobs.
I still don’t know exactly what made me keep moving, but somehow I managed to regroup and shortly before the 30k point Mike and Chris told me I was right in the hunt, and that the entire field in front of me was suffering worse than me. The last 10k was a nightmare of cramping and pain, but somehow I managed to continue to move through the field, and every aid station would see me moving past several competitors who had stopped. All of a sudden, 4.45 pace was far faster than anyone else around me was traveling!
Jeremy told me before the race, that if you could bottle and share just a small fraction of the feeling that you experience as you run down the finish chute of an Ironman that nobody would ever ask why we do it. For me, all I felt was relief. Several people watching the live stream contacted Lib in concern, as all they could see was me collapsing after the finish line to be carried away to the medical and recovery area. I had given everything I had in that race.
It took some time and some frank advice from Mike before I realised that what I had accomplished was pretty special. I had finished in 10th position on debut, which is what I believed I needed to get a qualification spot.
I wanted to cherish the memory of getting offered my spot the next day, but I don’t remember a thing! The 10 minutes after my name was called are almost a complete blank, but I have a letter here on my desk as I write this that begins with “Aloha and congratulations!”, so it must have been real…