*** many thanks to Kenneth Heney for this race report ***
A complete disrespect for the distance which in the end got me. I really did believe that I could achieve something spectacular at this event, but the one niggling doubt buried at the back of my mind before the event, became nailed to the front of my mind during the reality of Ironman. There are many ways to complete this long distance event, but unless you are 110% sure that your ready, don’t try and race it else you will experience hours of painful reality that you will never want to put your mind and body through again.
I had an excellent time at this event last year and produced a personal best, resulting in my signing up to come back again in 2015. All before I knew of the reality of training for triathlon in Riyadh. I expected it to be difficult but I believed that I was strong enough to overcome the problems that this location would present me and work out solutions, after all, I am an engineer and problem solving is my career.
Sure enough, training in Riyadh is tough but not insurmountable. There is a really good core group of people in Riyadh Triathletes, whom right from the start of my time here, helped by putting me in touch with people who train together on the bike and getting me access to embassy and compound swimming pools. Soon I was swimming frequently at the British School and cycling with new friends at the Humps and Dirab on the weekends and in the early mornings.
Later I discovered Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Olympic Complex with an excellent 50m 8 lane swimming pool for swim sets and was also introduced to Sufferfest for indoor training on the Tacx…100km on the Tacx trainer was an evening treat on occasion. So my swimming and biking were going really well, and that is where I needed to improve, but always in the background troubling me was the run.
Running has always been my strength and in my naivety, (and yes still after 8 Ironman events I am naïve to what and how to make a success out of this sport) I was not running the millage I have previously managed to do.
A lot of my running was done around my home in Olaya. I would run on the streets in long trousers in the searing heat and dust of Riyadh. Typically I would have to stop short as I was too dehydrated or would have run when the air was too dust filled, resulting in my suffering from temporary asthmatic issues for days before I was able to try again. I would do sessions on the treadmill, but these would cause me niggles in the lower legs due to the mechanical form induced by treadmill running.
I ran several times over 21km but only once in the build-up did I run long enough to consider it a long run suitable for marathon distance, being 30km plus.
I knew before I started this event that my running would be my achilles heal in my bid to achieve a good time, but as I considered this my strength discipline, I kinda buried that to the back of my mind and went into the event positive that my biking was good and my swimming was strong. When asked by family and friends how I was feeling on the run up to race day, my response was that I was feeling stronger than last year but less prepared; which would ultimately prove to be true.
But I had already decided that I was in Melbourne at the start of the Ironman Asia Pacific Championships 2015, to go for it, and I would put everything I had into success there, and irrespective of the result, I succeed in doing just that.
All was going well, with the bike set up and my family all there bright eyed and bushy tailed ready to see us off. And then in my wetsuit, I realise I have a large gash of about 3cm at the top of my left leg. Not having a clue how that happened, I am feeling pretty calm and shrug it off as tough, but then remember in my little tool kit for my bike, I have some electrical tape… you never know when you will need it. I use it to tape gels to my bike occasionally and mark settings of bars and saddles, but in this case, it made an excellent puncture repair kit for my Orca. Sorted.
So with hugs of good luck and goodbye with my family, and a big neoprene squeeze with Vicky, I am sent off down the sub 1 hour chute to the beach at Frankston, Victoria.
The Swim – 00:59:02
The start was billed as being a rolling start, which was new to me but seemed like a good idea. Although there was the usual crush of enthusiasm and impatience, it was centred this time around 6 turnstile type gates set up on the beach. We were ushered through these and then set off at 5 second intervals over a timing mat, which worked really well. I felt absolutely no pressure to be first in the water or to go in with the masses at the gun, but just to take my turn when it came.
Off I went with 5 other ambitious sub one hour anonymous athletes, with the pier on our right packed with spectators cheering us into the shallow waters. With several dolphin dives required until the water was deep enough for me to swim, I made my way into my 8th Ironman, 7 more than I ever intended to do.
The start worked really well for me as I like clear water, and I found it easy to position myself to avoid the claustrophobia of mass starts. I do think it takes a lot away from the spectacle that is a mass swim start to a competitive triathlon, but from a participant’s perspective, it was successful in taking away a little of the anxiety and a lot of the claustrophobia induced panic.
I wanted 58minutes for the swim, and with great conditions and a smooth start I was very confident. Soon I was into a rhythm and enjoying the sights of safety divers and the occasional lost sea life, thrashing out the first 800m to turn buoy one. I am typically terrible with sighting and direction on the swim, but this stream of swimmers created by the rolling start, gave me a line of bubbles and legs to follow, with the infrequent check of a closing sighting buoy.
After buoy one, there was a short sprint to buoy two, where we would turn and head back into the shore. At this point we had the sunrise directly in our eye line, and I had chosen clear googles, so wherever the buoys were, there was no chance I would see them. So I put all my faith in the legs I could see in front of me, and followed them. I can only assume they were doing the same, and the persons in front of them doing the same again, so if the lead age grouper was heading in the wrong direction, we all were. But that proved not to be the case, and we soon all snaked round the turn at buoy three.
A long 1000m stretch, 100m sprint and 1000m return leg completed the swim before turning at buoy six for 200m to the shoreline. I felt good and strong and found my own water. Where I couldn’t I worked on the boarding technique taught to me by Macca at Thanyapura during my one week’s camp there in November 2014. I was feeling pretty good and smiling on the inside, with none of the cramps I have been subject to on previous long hard swims and all my hard work on the swim seeming to have paid off as I exited the swim and spotted that my Garmin had yet to hit the hour mark. That moment of happiness in achieving my goal for the discipline is worth all the hard long hours swimming with the Arabs in 17m pools, the dangerous traffic on commutes to the British School, and the battle with Arabic language to gain me access to the Prince Faisal Bin Fahd Olympic Complex.
T1 – 00:04:00
Lifting myself out of the water with and jogging up Frankston beach, I am greeted with screams of encouragement from my Aunt and Uncle whom were hung over the barriers to support me and Vicky all the way.
More smiles and delight as I accelerate up through the showers to the changing tent, where my transition bag is plucked from the pegs and I have somehow changed uneventfully into my socks, shoes, helmet and arm warmers. Oakley in my mouth and my race belt secured, off to find my Look to carry me up and down the freeway for the remainder of the morning and into the early afternoon sun.
Life is swell.
Bike – 05:00:23
I knew what time I wanted and knew I had improved my cycling so was confident I could get it. After climbing out of Frankston and onto the Eastlink Freeway, I worked hard into a slight head wind to try and keep my average as close to what I needed for the overall distance. I had been told that it would be a headwind for the 45km stretch out, so wasn’t overly concerning myself that I wasn’t hitting the average pace I needed, as I was confident I could exceed this coming back in the opposite direction.
The route is a freeway, and is only punctuated by rolling small inclines, typically up and over bridges. There was very little drafting, if any at all, which was perhaps a result of the rolling swim start, but irrespective, policed well and observed by the athletes on all occasions where I could see opportunities for people to do this. It felt great to be in a fair race and be working on the bike with people who demonstrated by their actions that they too wanted a good clean race.
I had set myself a very rough idea of my bike nutrition, and on the early kilometres, worked out in my head how I would execute this. I had taken 4 SIS gels and a bag of SIS powershots, together with a bottle full of Gatorade and one full of water. The rest would be water only from aid stations. I worked out I would use the Gatorade up to 35km, when I would take my first gel. Then gels at 70km, 105km and 140km with one SIS powershot at every 10km starting at 45km. This little strategy gave me punctuations and goals to aim for rather than focusing on the big number of 180km.
On reaching the tunnel, I really hammered it down into it to see what I could clock, and was pleased to see 68kmph register on my Cateye cycle computer. Then I got out of the saddle and climbed up out of the tunnel with a hard big ring cadence.
At the turnaround, the wind advantage didn’t appear instantly obvious, but on exiting the tunnel for the second time and getting onto the bars, I was happy to see my speed in the low to mid-forties. I was sure I could make up the deficit to achieve the average speed required, and by the time I turned in Frankston, I had done just that with a first 90km in circa 2h24mins.
Happy legs, happy mind and happy biking.
Off out onto the freeway again for the second out and back section of the bike leg, and it was evident that it was harder this time. I’m sure the wind had picked up, but I was again sure that I could make up the difference by going even quicker in the last 45km.
The slight inclines seemed a bit more like hills and the speed was harder to maintain against the headwind that seemed stronger. But I worked very hard to keep as fast a pace as I could. I was beginning to think about the toilet, as I saw athletes stopping at portaloos, as by past experience it is about the 120km mark on the bike that I typically require to go, but it wasn’t the case today, so onwards to the tunnel I went.
Again I hammered it into the tunnel to up the average speed, but didn’t achieve the same speeds as the first time round, and the climb out was harder but I worked and worked to keep it all moving forward as quickly as I could.
When I turned, I was relieved as I now just had to put the foot down and ride fast back to Frankston and I was in with the run only to go, and I knew I could run.
Soon I realised my nutrition plan was going to fail, as a bag of SIS powershots was not big enough and I was running out. So I rationalised these and stopped taking them. I was finding it hard to keep as fast a pace as I wanted, but kept pushing and pushing as I wanted that sub 5 hour time for the bike. There were definitely hills now on the route, which before were slight inclines to ramps and I was feeling a lot of pain in my shoulders which felt like burning from the sun.
My mind was thinking about how to get sun cream and worrying about the permanent effects of sunburn, from the ozone depleted skies of Australia. My nutrition plan was completely forgotten about and yet I was still pushing as hard as I could with only 20kms to go to try and get that bike time.
Coming into Frankston I was still pushing and pushing, passing the bikers who were easing up to save legs for the run. I remembered that I hadn’t finished the powershots, and with 5km to go chucked the few I had been rationing and forgotten about, down my throat.
I pushed right up to the line, and having removed my feet from my shoes dismounted to see that I was 5 hours bang on. I was pleased to have that time and have the bike behind me, but instantly aware that my legs were not comfortable.
T2 – 00:00:51
I worked my legs into a running form from the cadence of the last 5 hours, passed my bike somewhat clumsily to a catcher and robotically jogged through the tent, where I picked up my bag, to the change tent. Shoes on, SIS gels scooped up into my hand, and cycling gear discarded I ran out onto the wooden boardwalks which make up the first few kilometres of the run.
Run – 04:24:47
With my swim and bike time goals achieved, I would simply have to run in a good marathon time to be in with a shot of an entry of my dreams. And I am a runner, so having set myself up with a chance, it would be hard, but achievable.
My Cousin was there in the same spot as last year, and after km 1 I was boosted by her cheers and by the fact that my target pace was there or thereabouts. But I was working hard already.
Soon my pace was quickly dropping and my legs were just not responding nor falling into line with their prescribed duty. I was working so hard very early at km 3 and 4 to try and maintain sub 4:30s, but they seemed impossibly hard to get. I am recalculating my options and already my mind is giving up on my target marathon time and thinking of alternatives, but I wouldn’t let that goal go and I worked really hard in km 5 to try and get it quicker, but to no avail.
By the aid station at km 6 I stopped and walked it. I was already planning a run walk strategy, and hoped with some coke and water I could run at least to the 10km mark. I knew I was in big trouble, but pushed and pushed to 10km, and watched the splits get longer and longer. Running through the 8km aid station seemed like I’d achieved something unimaginable, and reaching 10km I couldn’t even get to the first water table before I was walking. A buffet of water, cola, water, enduralite, water, cola, ice and more water was now the focus of my entire life. I took it all, and on reaching the last table felt a huge sigh of despair as I had to try to run again.
I managed a slow and difficult run to the next aid station at 12km, where I feasted again on hydration. Then after jogging a further 1km, I could feel my heart racing and my core temperature seemed to be at the molten end of the scale, and I stopped. I kept using my wooden legs to put my lava filled shoes one step ahead of the other, but I knew I was in big big trouble.
It became a blur of walking, filling my trisuit with ice, shuffling and watching the ground move slowly below my Asics as I tried to use the intake of SIS gel to lift my head onto my shoulders.
Occasionally I would jog 100 steps, and then be abruptly brought to a walk as my chest filled with volcanic heat and my body said no more. I would walk though aid stations, where helpers would shower me in ice and water, asking if I was OK to go on, and on I would go disheartened but determined to finish.
I would try to jog from the end of an aid station to the next km marker, then agree with myself that I would walk from there to the next aid station.
I would stumble into a shuffle when raised by spectators, and force myself to run and hide the pain when my Cousin and her kids would appear at points along the course to support me. I could tell they were worried, so would try to move to lessen their concern, as I was going to finish this.
I have never had to dig so deep as that, but somehow I managed to use the tiny bit of my mind which was determined to finish to battle with the rest of my mind which was insistent I stop and my body which was shutting down on the pavements of St Kilda in the last few kilometres. Something was released which allowed me to run what felt like a blistering pace of 6min kms toward the finish; something gave me the energy to smile at my Aunt and Uncle seen again folded over a new barrier raising my spirits; and something forced my arms away from my waist to fly down the finish carpet and cross the line.
That something vanished and I was caught collapsing to my left into a fine flower arrangement. Adorned with my towel and medal, I am slumped over an Australian’s shoulders and escorted to recovery. I have to convince him to let me try to stand on my own, to which I collapsed again into his arms. On the second attempt a few minutes later, I am OK and managed to agree to my release into the food tent.
Despite everything, I recover quickly and eat and begin to quench and unquenchable thirst. After changing and making my way out, I am greeted with huge smiles and open arms of my Cousins, my Uncle and my Aunt and I soon turn my focus to tracking and supporting Vicky and Jan.
The Analysis – 10:29:03
I went for it. I wanted a Kona slot, and I went for it. IM Melbourne is fast and packed with a very strong age group field, possibly because the Australians are excellent sportsmen and it also falls perfectly for Kona qualification within the same racing calendar year. But I really believed I could do it; and that hasn’t changed.
I learnt a lot out there by going for it, and I made a few mistakes along the way, but I will learn from this and move on to the next event wiser.
My first oversight was in my build up. I focused and trained to improve my weaknesses and did not train enough on my strengths.
Whether it was induced by the fact the climate and religious beliefs of Saudi Arabia, or whether it was because I left little time for it with all the swimming and cycling, I did not run enough in training. I believed I was a runner and I would be OK, and I should focus on improving my swimming and cycling. Ultimately, I didn’t run long enough or hard enough, and paid for it in the end.
In preparation I didn’t set up an adequate nutrition plan for the bike, and as a result of this my second error, I was not sufficiently fuelled or hydrated for the run. Not once in the preparation did I give this any proper thought, and for a triathlete whom has completed 7 ironman events before this one, this is unacceptable. I just meandered up to race day thinking that SIS gel and some powershots would be OK. This lapsidaisical attitude bit back hard when I tried to run my pace in the afternoon.
Thirdly, I was too focused on discipline times, and this caught me out. I so desperately wanted a sub 5 hour bike time that I pushed hard and harder in the last 20kms of the bike, while others were spinning and rolling it into transition, readying themselves for the run. I got off the bike very happy with my bike time, but had totally lost sight of the overall event, and by treating each discipline separately, I started running with my legs shot from the effort to get my bike time.
My next and forth mistake was the attitude to the sun. I considered myself to be weathered, having trained in Riyadh for a year, and therefore took no precaution by applying sun cream. The sun in Australia is very strong and being in area of depleted ozone, very dangerous. I felt the pain on my shoulders late in the bike, and continued to feel the impact of the sun as I ran and my body temperature was very difficult to control with my heart rate reflecting this. The weather on the day was hot, hotter than predicted, but high 28 – 30 deg for me shouldn’t have been an issue, which was a very stupid assumption to make and a dangerous mistake made.
Finally, I lost respect for not only the marathon run distance, but also the Ironman distance. I went into this thinking I could race the event, and that is what I tried to do. Ironman success does not come to those who race it, but to those whom recognise and appreciate the enormity of the challenge, effectively prepare, prepare and prepare more and then manage themselves mentally and physically the best during the event.
I am pleased I went for it, as I learned a lot and can take many positives away from the experience. I continue to love this sport and the people whom make it what it is across the globe, and will race again with IM Melbourne 2015 tucked under my race belt as an experience to draw upon when I need inspiration to work harder and focus more. The quest for the perfect race continues, and I expect will continue as long as I love to swim, bike and run.