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IMWA Doug Robertson 2015

A well-known quotation states that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Back in June 2015 I was confronting the harsh reality of that definition. I had just completed a frustrating Cairns IM with an average swim and run ruined by a really bad day on the bike. Cairns had been my fifth IM, and whilst there had been improvements, and a few near misses for a Kona spot, I had hit a plateau in terms of overall results.

I realised that my training had become overly focussed on how many kilometres, and how many hours of training I could complete each week, in the belief that the more I did, then the better I would become. In reality, the outcome of this approach was that I had become stuck in a single pace, was always fatigued and ultimately became sick or injured.

So there I was contemplating my insanity during a gentle run along the Cottesloe foreshore when I recognised the svelte form jogging along in front of me. I had been on nodding terms with Coach Deb previously, knowing her as a somewhat talkative uber-cyclist having been part of the same team in one of the local Sportives. We got talking; I was happy to talk about my IM frustrations and Deb, well she’s just happy to talk. Somehow the outcome of this casual chat was an agreement that I really needed to do something different, and that the obvious and only solution was that I should sign up with Pursuit Coaching.

I do sometimes look back on that chance encounter and wonder if I was in fact, the innocent victim of an elaborate honey-trap.

I was definitely wondering about that after Mike Gee sent me off on a solo 5km time trial. It’s a long, long time since I had done something quite that intense and uncomfortable. I could only hope that the heart-rate data indicated by my Garmin was the result of some software flaw.

That time trial was just the first of many intense and uncomfortable sessions. I was being hauled out of my slow and steady (and lot of it) approach, and indoctrinated to the polarized training philosophy. Initially the only good thing I could say about these intense (hellishly early in the morning) sessions was that they were mercifully short.

During the first couple weeks it seemed that my Garmin had become an instrument of Big Brother (or in my case Big Sister). I became very suspicious of the device when I bumped into Coach Deb on the very first of my Thursday long runs. I remember looking at my Garmin and wondering if there was some little-known function that allowed Deb to track where I was, and what I was doing at any given time. The Garmin Online Help Desk advised that such a function did not yet exist, so I guess Deb was just out doing a bit of honey-trapping.

As with any coach-athlete relationship, there is a little bit of work required to understand and appreciate what makes each other tick. Initially, following each nasty, early morning intensity session, the ever-positive Coach Deb would say things like “wasn’t that awesome” and look at me earnestly for some sort of positive acknowledgement. I could see what was perhaps some confusion, or even disappointment, when my response was either a glare or a grunt of “was ok I suppose”.

I eventually felt obliged to sit Deb down and explain that I come from a place where we have a hard earned national trait for being dour, and the use of effusive words like “awesome” were just not the done thing. I think we better understand each other now, and I’ve even been known to give Deb a smirk (but never an awesome).

So my first six weeks at Pursuit was a bit of a crash course at getting ready for the 70.3 WC in Austria. Preparing and experiencing the event was definitely enhanced by the Pursuit Coaching experience. Whilst for me the event outcome was not exactly stellar, the experience was fun and we all learnt a little bit more about managing (or mismanaging) the combined effects of heat, nutrition and the intensity associated with climbing a bloody big hill.

IMWA 2015 had not been on my agenda at the beginning of the year, but I had decided that I would attempt to use Busso as redemption for a frustrating day at Cairns. It would also prove an interesting proving ground for my transition from my volume focussed approach to the Pursuit training philosophy.

As always, training for an IM is the hard part, and getting to the start line fit, healthy and sane is probably the major achievement. The programme set by Deb and Mike is not for sissies. It can be hard work, however, I found that it didn’t break you down as much as my previous “how much can I do before I hurt myself” approach.

Being the first time I’ve trained with a group, I found the group environment definitely helped, particularly on the long days. There were many times, particularly on the bike, when the little voices in my head were telling me to sit up and cruise, but the desire to try and stay in the same postcode as the other group members helps eke out that extra bit of effort.

Coach Deb delicately prodded me along providing mysterious feedback using terms like “fatigue resistance” and the like. She did however feel it was necessary to take a more hands on approach when it came to the issue of naming my bike. She was horrified to learn my bike had no name, and became frustrated at my reticence to come up one. It was all crazy talk to me; but things got a whole lot worse when she announced, in front of a lot of people who should not hear such things, that my bike should be called “Bubbles”. I could tell from the suppressed sniggers around me that I wasn’t going to escape that one. You just don’t say stuff like that in front of the likes of Bedforth, O’Donovan et al. It was like being fourteen again when your mother spills out some cringingly embarrassing information in front of your mates.

As the day of the event approached, I’d be lying if I said there were not some doubts about whether I’d done enough and if I was ready (there always are). On the day before heading down to Busselton, Monica (my significant other) asked if I thought I was ready, casually adding “because you haven’t done nearly as much training as you normally do”. Now previously that sort of statement would send me into a tailspin, and I would have become one of those nutcases you see flogging themselves on the road between Busso and Dunsborough two days before then event. Now I was able to simply respond that that was the whole idea of following the Pursuit programme. Not sure if she was convinced.

The day of the race arrived and it was a wee bit blustery. As per Mike’s guidance I positioned myself to the front right of swim start line. Claude Morris was obviously following similar instructions as I noticed he was standing alongside me, looking pretty cool, laid back, and maybe a little surprised he’d actually made it to the start line on time. We both wished each other all the best and looked around to see a host of type-A characters in wetsuits itching to rumble. Claude assessed the situation and provided some assurance in his typically relaxed drawl, advising me that “man we’re gonna get smashed”.

The gun went off, and we got smashed. It’s during that first couple of hundred metres that you realise what the “unco” swim drill is all about, as you try and get at least one arm moving to make some headway. “Swimming with fists” then kicks in as you try and return some of the favours dished out by those around you. However, things soon settled down allowing me to focus on bobbing around like a cork, swallowing as much water as possible in the somewhat rough conditions. There is a technique to swimming in choppy conditions, and I haven’t got it.

Less said about the bike the better. It was windy so there were some good bits and some bad bits, and then some really bad bits. Wind and Bubbles don’t mix. The last 40km is a long harsh discussion with some very dark voices. It’s just a matter of keeping the legs turning and trying not to panic.

For me the run is always a celebration of getting off the bike. The Spotters informed me that I was lying 3rd around 17 minutes behind my AG leader. However, that didn’t worry me as much as the critical eye of Mike Gee who would be providing some verbal advice (or maybe throwing things) if any of the Pursuit crew’s pacing was off.

Towards the end of the run Coaches Deb and Mike really came into their own, moving down to the quieter part of the course and providing all sorts of encouragement and run-split information. Mike went so far as to prove he has a sense of humour by suggesting I should let the dogs out and go as hard as I liked for the last lap.

I also remember Deb running alongside shouting out encouragement and time gaps. I must have been looking my usual sceptical self, as she resorted to thrusting her phone into my face telling me to check out the tracking data for myself. Support and encouragement like that you can’t buy, and I owe Deb a huge thank you for her enthusiasm, patience and generosity.

I caught my AG leader just before the final turn-around and went past as quickly as I could, hoping that he was hurting more than me. After a couple of minutes I realised someone was on my tail and found myself in a foot race for the finish. Not the place you want to be for the last 5km or so of an Ironman.

We both put in some surges and made small breaks, but kept coming back together, however the effort of catching up was starting to bite, and my legs were starting to cramp-up. By the last kilometre or two any attempt to stretch my legs and get away was causing a fairly painful reaction, and in the end I couldn’t pick up the pace enough, finally finishing a close second in my AG.

So after following the Pursuit training approach for a tad under six months I gained a new PB and the surreal experience of winning a Kona spot.

Lots of things can, and do go wrong whilst training for, and executing an IM, but from my own somewhat brief experience, the training philosophy and environment provided by Pursuit give you a much better chance of achieving your goals, staying healthy and having some fun along the way.

A key bit of advice perhaps, is that if Deb is to be your coach, make sure your bike has a bloody good name. Name it after some Nordic war god, or your favourite porn star, or anything that’s not too embarrassing ….otherwise there will be consequences.

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