Disclaimer: This will be a LOOOOOONG post as it was my first long (relatively) distance triathlon and I want to document my journey in details and not just snippets to refer back to. Bear with me if you’re willing to have a look at how this came to be, or if you like bears. Bears are awesome. Especially polar bears. #Roar
After failing to participate in Ironman Galveston 70.3 earlier this year, I was keen to have my first IM 70.3 race before the end of the year. With work, unexpected travel, personal commitments, I wasn’t sure how this would pan out but I’m happy that it did. Managed to register for 1.9km of swimming, 90km of biking and 21.1km of running at beautiful Mandurah (Western Australia). Considering this was a special event for me, I think it’s only fair that I push beyond my procrastination and inertia and to articulate my experience over this journey. (You’ll hear this word a LOT in this post. I’ve got a vocabulary as diverse as Daniel Craig’s expressions. Journey.)
What’s always fascinated me is how “realising” a new set of standards for normality can dramatically influence your own results without much of a conscious change. This, of course, works in both good and bad ways, but the sheer extent to which this can push you up or pull you down is just baffling to me. Through my preparation for this event, I was grateful to have people who I could bounce ideas off and share my excitement with. I cannot overstate how much of a difference having these people around made, both in terms of the physical prep and moral backing.I started this journey (Yes.) with a race target of 6 hours. Over the course of the last 3 months, I realised how much better I would have to become to achieve this and eventually lost all hope and dropped the target to 06:30 like a sad little puppy, promising myself though to be consistent with the training and not feel regret. Funnily enough, the consistency in training started paying dividends with my rides getting faster and swims more consistent. This made me think back to my original target and I figured there was no harm in keeping a strong target and giving it my hardest.
In a feeble attempt to appeal to my readers’ (all 3 of you) patience, here’s an index for how this will proceed.
No, there wasn’t a lot of creativity put into the titles.
After writing a chunky paragraph on my training, I’ve rubbed it all away considering I could devote pages to those details without really getting to any real conclusion. In essence, my time was mainly spent in achieving incremental gains without getting too ambitious. Consistent training over zealous bursts.
Over the weeks, my bike speed went from averaging 28km/hr over 50km to around 31km/hr, and my swim developing from practically dog-paddling to completing 200m in under 5 min consistently. I see you judging me. This might not sound like much but I am quite pleased with the feat considering I couldn’t swim 2 years ago.
Working in the northern parts of Western Australia meant that I did not have much time at home for bike rides. So I brought my bike up to the site where I worked at, and sneaked in rides after work. The long and hot stretches turned out to be a blessing in disguise, providing consistent and slightly undulating roads that went on forever. I experimented with my water bottles, torpedo bottles, watch positions etc. to find what worked for me. Even realised how long it would take for a frozen water bottle to completely melt to ensure I had some refreshing cold water near the latter parts of my rides.
My swimming was as basic as it came. To put it simply, my strategy was to swim more. And more. And more. To the point where the thought of swimming long distances would not make me shit my pants, and get me kicked out of the pool with that one kid looking at you and shaking his head from distance. We all know that kid. Hate that kid. So yeah, basically to feel more at home in the water. Speed was never really an option for me. Not for this race at least.
A month before the race, I completed the Oxfam 50km hike with some friends. This was an amazing experience but knocked back the training by a bit since I had a fair few blisters for souvenir. I’ll spare the pictures in case you’re eating while reading this. When I did eventually get back to training, I got a bit excited and kicked up my seat post height for an aggressive riding position. This turned out disastrous with me tearing my arse apart on my first 50km ride. My wife, Shereen, and my mate, Dan, suggested I get a proper fit done instead of winging it myself. Wisdom in its purest form. The fit with Daniel Oldmeadow & Kate Luckin at StarPhysio was orgasmic in biking comfort (I know this sounds like a total endorsed mention and I wish it was, so that I could afford some new wheels. But no.). And amazingly, the increase in comfort (although at the cost of losing an aggressive riding position) helped me ride better and easier, which subsequently helped me get faster. He even repositioned the cleats on my bike shoes to help shift the load from the calves to the hamstrings. Sheer genius!
Considering Mandurah has been a traditionally hot run, I worked on protecting myself against this almost certain inevitability. Hot runs to acclimatize were the go, with my first such run being a 15 km jog (crawl) in 42 degree heat in the Pilbara region. Words cannot describe my helplessness and pathetic state of affairs throughout that run. A passerby could have easily mistaken me for someone learning to walk. I ran 3 more of such runs in the final 3 weeks and could feel my body taking it better each time. I did very well notice that as the sun set and the temperature dropped, there was a sweet spot of around 35 degrees (Celsius) where my body would go “Alright we can work with this, let’s go!” and turn to a steady machine.
Being cheap, I bought a mount for my Garmin watch to fix it on the bike so I wouldn’t need a bike computer. Turns out the fit on my existing gear wasn’t great, so I resorted to some precision cutting to solve that problem. I also tried a new set of gels that wouldn’t be thick enough as to make the throat feel dry but not thin enough to be missing the needed goodness.
Then came the final fortnight where I focussed on tapering via short & quick workouts, and gaining clarity on what I would be doing at transitions.
The idea was that transition time was the one area where you were on equal grounds to any other athlete. These are free minutes and there is no reason for you to not be quick. Imagine a typical T1 of 5min and T2 of 4min. If you shave off 2 minutes from each with a bit of forethought of your actions there, that’s 4 minutes saved with almost no effort. Imagine the effort that would be needed to have a 4 minute faster half-marathon. Heaps! Transition is easy money. Practice it a few times and you’re setting yourself up to a smooth…. transition?
A week before the race, some interesting events made my life more…. interesting. (A poet with words)
- While dropping me off at an airport, my colleague/friend gave me a can of a chilled one. I couldn’t have it then because of the event but he insisted I keep it with me for a post-race “recovery”, which I promptly abided by.
2. My swim goggles started leaking away and nothing I did stopped the continuous seeping. A sense of loyalty to the goggles along with a tad bit of OCD made me try everything to fix it, including dipping it in boiling water and letting it cool around my face, to make the seals contract to the shape of my bones. Nope.
Accepted defeat and bought a new pair 2 days before the race.
4. I had rented a set of racing wheels from a reputed company over at the east. Unfortunately they never turned up. I was supposed to get them put on my bike 2 days before race and get it all serviced but none of that worked out. Apparently the shipping got stuffed up (I received the wheels 2 days after the race) for some reason. Although I had every fantasy of riding a sweet set of HED disc wheels at the rear and a mean looking deep section wheel on the front, I suppose this was a bit of a wake up call for me to stop whining for fancy accessories and just give it my best with what I had.
5. Now this might sound like some serious narcissism and rightly so, but I have to say that I felt great physically. This was my first race where I had put in the due effort and been disciplined with my diet and workouts. It’s one thing to know it and a whole another deal to feel it! I didn’t feel skinny or ripped, I just felt good and ready! It’s quite an empowering feeling when you feel the right muscles and the right parts of you are ready and raring to go.
To that one reader (Love you, mom!) still reading, trust me we’re getting there.
On the day before the race, Shereen and I shot off to an hour-long drive to Mandurah (from Perth) with all my battle gear in the backseat. Straight to the expo, we grabbed my race kit and had the folks ring some bells and yell out “first timer!!”. Considering how calm and neutral I felt, I was a bit confused to not see much of the expected giddy excitement from me. It was amazing to see my name and country’s flag on the BIB. I’ve only done one other race that had my name on the BIB. Makes such a huge difference to hear people call out your name, look you in the eye and sincerely encourage you to move your arse forward.
Checked in to our gorgeous stay and then returned to the race area to listen to some pros, get some race briefings done. Checked in my bike and met up with Dan later. We decided that he would crash at the same place as us which was great fun.
The night was a carb-less dinner for me. I had been on a ‘low carb high fat’ regime for a while which had been working really well, so I intended to stick to the idea that my body’s fat adaptation should make any carb loading unnecessary. I had also cut out caffeine (sacrilege!!) in hopes that my caffeine based nutrition would be more effective on race day. Got back and sorted the final inventory for the race day. Threw in my electrolytes torpedo bottle and my water bottle in the freezer, along with a bottle of Gatorade and beer in the fridge for pre and post race.
The day started at 4am with me plugging in my headphones to my death-metal-go-kill-people-race-ready-playlist. Not everyone empathized with this routine but it’s what works for me. A gorgeous day for the race with us rocking up to the bike check-in and loading up our gear and setting up transition for the day ahead of us. Kieran rocked up with his gorgeous dog, Cleo, around the same time. The swim was through estuaries which looked gorgeous.
It was amazing to have Shereen, Dan & Kieran around. Nothing like any of the triathlons I had done earlier by myself. Those are fun during the race but borderline depressing before and after. This was such a different experience, I do feel I’ve been spoiled by it pretty hard.
My age group started as the first wave and I was still pretty amazed at how calm I felt through the whole thing. Getting into the water, I felt the buoyancy provided by the wetsuit in salty water. This was going to be my first open water swim in a wetsuit so I was pretty stoked about that! 06:08 AM and off we went!
I spent the first 200m-300m trying to fix my leaking goggles. Yes, the new ones too! I think my face just generally sucks. And not literally. Literally would have worked great, but no it just sucks. New as they might have been, I reckon I should have spent more time in fitting them well to my face. Eventually I deemed it to be a lost cause and focussed on swimming steady instead of stopping every few seconds. Thankfully the leak stabilised after a point and even though I had some salty water in my eyes all the time, it never got worse. It was a pretty steady swim from there. The final 500m had me getting cramps around my hamstrings which made me wonder what lay ahead on the bike. It was only after the race that I realised I had done a 41min swim split which was some seriously good news to me! Rushed to the transition and saw Shereen and Kieran cheering me on which brough a big fat sincere smile to my face.
Tried to work through my practised transition routine but I was too knackered to stay focussed. Jumped on my bike and kept telling myself that neither of my 2 laps should drop below an average of 30kmph. I had come for a sub 3 Hour bike ride and I wasn’t going back without it! Fumbled around on my bike to get my shoes on and could feel the hamstring cramp lurking around the corner. Kept it at snail’s pace for the first 2-3km and took in electrolytes and salt pills. Eventually the cramping subsided and I felt I was ready to push.
The course was pretty flat with a slight tailwind on the way out of Mandurah and a corresponding tailwind on the way back. At the end of the first lap, I could hear Shereen and Kieran around the turnaround which pumped me up a bit and I told myself that I would fight for a negative split. There were predictions that the wind would pick up at 9am which it promptly did. Damn you, accurate weather forecasts! I was halfway through the second lap when this happened so the way back was no fun. Managed to finish the bike averaging 31kmph (2Hr 53Min) which was beyond my expectations, although I didn’t really know this until after the race.
I crashed while trying to dismount because I didn’t quite rightly gauge the location of the dismount line and only got one foot out of the shoe in time. Hobbled into transition with a bleeding wrist and felt pretty dazed through the whole thing. As soon as I got out to run, I remember thinking “This isn’t gonna work out, my legs feel totally busted I can barely jog”. We went through the race finish area before even beginning the first lap. When one of the volunteers gave me a red band saying FIRST LAP!, I couldn’t believe that after “all that” running, I had barely started the third leg of the race. I’ll leave the details out but let’s just say that for the first 3km I didn’t think I would finish and considered quitting. There was a lot of cramping along the way, starting with the hamstrings and then to the quads. I saw Dan running back to finish the first of the 2 laps and he cheered me on. I focussed on stopping my quads from engaging and to use primarily my glutes and calf muscles. This seemed to work for a while before my calves started cramping as well. To look at the bright side, at least I know all my muscles are equally developed!
Around the 7km mark, I told myself to just keep nudging forward, one step at a time. Sub-6 dreams were out the window. This was survival. A few aid stations later I zoned in on the formula that was working for me and letting my push back the cramps by just about 2km, enough to get me to the next aid station.
i) Splash of water with a jug of water
ii) Cap full of ice
iii) Two cups of coke
iv) Two cups of water
v) Caffeinated salt pill
I did this again and again and again and again, while digging in deep and telling myself that the pain would end but my finish time would be permanent. Saw Dan on the way back and cheered him on. Saw a few more familiar faces who encouraged me on. Also saw my A-Team, Shereen and Kieran, at the end of the first lap which was awesome.
On the final stretch, I saw Shereen before the point where you make the final U-turn and run to the red carpet. Threw over my hat over to her to gear up for my killer finish pic. Hah, if only I knew what lay ahead! Right after she went away to reposition herself near the finish, my calves started giving away. The crowd around me started yelling at me by name and telling me I was almost there. I kept pushing and smiled at seeing the red carpet. Here’s where things went a tad too dramatic.
As I stepped on the carpet, the commentator starts yelling my name and me being first timer and all. I see Shereen and Dan and head over to give them a high-five before crossing the finish. One high-five in and my right calf goes away. Another step and the left calf cramps too, with the crowd going “Ooooohhh!!”. I am as crippled as I could be and to make things spicier, I can hear the host narrating about my cramps and how close I was to the finish line. With some encouraging words from Shereen and Dan, I fight to gain some hobbling momentum and the crowd starts getting loud. Seriously, I’m not making this shit up. 20m or so more and I cross the finish line before crumpling into the arms of a couple of volunteers who put a medal and a towel around me. They were super nice but I had to stop them from getting medical attendants and a wheel chair. Surely things weren’t that bad.
Hung myself on the fence like a wet rag and watched my calves do these freaky movements. It’s the kind of shit you see in a James Cameron movie before an alien pops out of there. Wasn’t really interested in the finisher’s area since the 3 awesome people I wanted to meet up with were on the other side. Turns out I finished in 05:57, 3 minutes within my target! Dan had managed to clinch his 5 Hour target as well, even though he didn’t have a wetsuit or his usual pre-race spaghetti dinner. Good day for all! We chilled around for a bit before bidding our goodbyes.
With the race done and dusted, I have been bestowed with the amazing power of hindsight. In retrospect, it seems quite clear to me that I let my running fitness slide a fair bit during the training. The bike has always been my favourite leg of a triathlon and there’s no doubt that I love to spend more time on the bike than on my feet or in the water. That being said, I’ll be having a go at improving my running speeds in the coming few months as I feel the run in a long distance triathlon is what makes or breaks your final time.
So what’s next? Not too sure but Shereen’s signed up for a full Ironman in Sweden in August, 2016. I’m going to be there with her anyway so figured I might as well race it. Not sure I’ve thought this through but I reckon it’ll be another amazing… journey. Also, I still owe myself that sub-4 marathon I’ve never had a chance at. Plenty to work on!