I made a mistake last year. I accidently entered the Busselton ironman 12 hours after swearing blind I’d never compete in another one. I was hoping my credit card company would see sense and decline the payment on the grounds that I was being stupid. But it didn’t so the fault of me competing in this year’s lies squarely at the feet of Mastercard. Priceless.
But I got to admit, I was seduced into these ironman things by the siren photos of Busselton from a few years ago, especially the overhead shot of the swim start which has got to be one of the most dramatic in sport – it’s colourful, exciting and strangely majestic. You are looking down on thousands of people giving it everything they’ve got and as a lover of sport you are excited for them, experiencing that mini surge of adrenalin you get before watching a big game and secretly wanting to be there.
That was me. Wanting to be there. Roll forward a couple of years and I’m standing on the beach waiting to go and it’s not quite the same story, especially having already done one, ticked “Ironman” off my life to-do list and wanting to go Kilimanjaro instead.
This is the funny thing about these stuuuupid ironmen things and why I was dumb enough to enter this year’s race too. We get up in the middle of the night to ride our bikes, we nearly drown ourselves in the swimming pool and go through all sorts of agonies out running. For what? To beat our own ridiculously slow time that would embarrass any able-bodied athlete.
Last year I completed Ironman Busselton in the sextuple-Nelson time of 11:11:11 and would have been overjoyed to beat that time by a second. In the end I didn’t because something went horribly wrong at the 206km mark but it certainly wasn’t for the want of trying. If you can swim, cycle and run a bit, you can wing an OD triathlon. If you are a bit fitter you can even get away with a half ironman without too much extra effort. But a full ironman? No chance. You have to train.
The training is worse than the actual race. Long hours spent in soul-searching solo rides, runs and swim session which give you such fatigue you are almost too tired to sleep.
The worst session of all was a Wednesday night swimming hour with the great team at Metasport after I’d trained all weekend, Monday evening, Tuesday morning and evening, and again on Wednesday morning. I could barely get my arms through the water. I was feeling dizzy and slightly nauseous while my fellow [slow-lane] swimmers were passing me left and right. Then the bottom of the low point came when the very nice Metasport coach, who I’m sure meant well, asked “why are you swimming like a beginner?” I just stood there at the end of the swimming lane, my shoulders slumped in defeat, my confidence draining into the pool.
I got out of the pool and walked off in a pantomime huff.
The run training had its moments too – running out of puff during a 30km run and having to take the bus home, a foretaste of what was to come as it happens. Or running head long into an Auntie who span round 360 degrees and continued on walking as if nothing had happened. But the bike was all fun. It always is. Bike training for this began when I was 16 when I got my first road bike, and ended with a 150km solo trip round the island two weeks before the race.
Having the right equipment helps of course and whereas swimming involves more technique the cycling leg needs good equipment. I had that with the Neil Pryde Bayamo TT bike pimped to the hilt with Zipp wheels. Simply put, it is the baddest-ass bike I’ve ever ridden and I couldn’t wait to let rip with it.
Dawn…on the day of
You can smell the grass…
The bike, ready to go
So fully seduced again, I rocked up to Busselton last week, romanced by images of the finish line, the beautiful pier and that amazing picture of the swimmers in the water bashing it out.
But it’s different being the swimmer on the beach. We’re completely crapping ourselves. We have 226km of brutality ahead of us with each kilometre being harder than the last and the final five a pain-wracked fest of inhumanity. It’s like voluntarily putting your hand up for some medieval torture.
And yet. On the beach, everyone is suddenly your friend. Strangers wish you good luck, the esprit d’corp flows through ranks, ‘see you on the other side’ is the unspoken message passed from swimmer to swimmer. It’s the feeling I’m sure those poor buggers in the trenches had just before they went over the top all those years ago and, back on the couch, you watch them as they prepare for battle: brave, honourable, noble souls. And yet ultimately doomed.
Sunday 7th December, 7am, a town south of Perth, Western Australia. I’m standing in a foot of water with a skin-tight wet suit on. I’m putting the whole year’s work into one 11-hour long A-Level examination. The agony of the road races, the suffering of the first 30km practice run, the jellyfish stings, the sprains, the back ache, the blisters, the sun burn. The sleep deprivation. In front of me on the beach, a couple give each other the warmest kiss I’ve seen all year and hold each other’s hands as tight as a vice, their white knuckles bound together like it’s the last time they’ll ever see each other before a final, loving, scared stare into each other’s eyes.
We compete in ironman competition for exactly this feeling right here, right now on this beach. It’s the final five minute countdown before the plunge into the cold sea – it’s the gut wrenching, stomach churning terror of what lies ahead and what’s gone behind. We don’t know what’s going to happen. So many things have to go right for this to work and we all know it’s going to be as hard as hell. It’s the second best feeling in the world. It’s what we love about sport.
And like that, it’s Go. Three strokes in and I get whacked on the nose with an errant elbow. Three strokes later and I’m deep into the multiple choice section of my A-Level, trying desperately to remember all the stuff I’ve learned in those endless pool sessions: 10 to 2, stretch and glide, finish your stroke. Swimming is what I think Team Sky refers to with cycling when they talk about ‘the sum of incrementals’. The equal problem with this is that unlike cycling or running, technique runs parallel with strength and fitness. And I have no technique whatsoever which makes me swim as fast as a beached whale.
The problem about being a sad-ass slow swimmer in this part of the world is sharks. It certainly didn’t help that the afternoon before, they closed the beach because a three-metre great white had been seen circling the pier. Here’s the real problem. When you watch these wildlife shows, the predators always seem to go for the weak one at the back. So when one is dressed in a blubbery black wet suit and is splashing around like a fat baby seal at the back of a swimming pack, to a Great White Shark, I look like, well, a blubbery black fat baby seal.
There is little consolation in the organisers the night before assuring us all that they had the latest radar technology to detect a shark within a 3km radius – it takes a shark two minutes to swim 3km and me three minutes to swim 150 metres to the pier, giving me a life to death ratio success rate of 2:3. Those aren’t good poker odds and I’d probably fold my hand right there. In the end, I needn’t have worried. The water was so cold that the sharks were probably huddled together in front of a nice warm fire somewhere trying to keep warm. The water was, to this land-lubbing, tropic dweller, freezing.
Warm up day in Busselton, WA
A warm up or a cool down, either way, it’s a beautiful swim
Sentosa it ain’t
Such thoughts occupied my head as I splashed along and completely lost my concentration. The pre-race swim plan of going right of the first enormous 10 foot high fluorescent buoy went down the plug hole as I swam straight into it having forgotten to sight. But at least that was the last swim error I made as I got right into the slipstream of some dude and sucked his ankles, if I may borrow and distort a cycling expression. I must have touched his toes about a dozen times, which would have pissed me off no end had it been the other way around but whoever it was, thanks.
The swim at Busso is simply stunning. The water is crystal clear and even 2km out by the end of the pier you can just about make out the bottom and the sea this year was calm as you like. It beats Sentosa anyhoo. If ever a 4km swim could be “easy”, this was it and it felt like no time before I was out. I finished in a group and when I got to transition it was busy with barely a seat to sit on. That was a good sign as it surely meant I was quicker than last year and was – five minutes faster which I was delighted at.
Then the bike leg. This was cool and verged on the enjoyable, for the first half at least. Pity the poor bloke who I saw with a flat right out of transition and the other one who I heard crashed at the same place but no such bad luck here. On the first of two 90km loops, the wind was almost flat calm and once out of the squiggly bits of the town I got into my tuck, into my rhythm and into my concentration.
And that is kind of it in terms of how to report five hours on a bike in an ironman. The fact is, it’s boring as hell – you do not talk to anyone, there is no racing involved, no wheels to catch (except if you are a pro female athlete, ahem, ahem), and the only excitement happens when you reach an aid station.
If I must…because the first half was calm, I reached the turn point in two hours 35 minutes and was cruising; I mean it felt like I was barely making an effort. The second half was the opposite and it was purely because there seemed to be either a cross wind or headwind the whole way. The 10km back into town on lap one was a cruisy 40kmph and on lap two, I was struggling to keep the dial at 33kmph. The expectations plummeted.
This inevitably ate into my time and I finished the bike leg in 5.25 – about 25 minutes slower than what I could do I reckon and probably about 10 mins slower than my rough target time but at least I was now a solid 10-15 mins ahead of where I was last year and had plenty left in the tank.
Through transition, the jelly legs for five minutes and then into my proper stride. Running at exactly the pace I wanted to for the first half at 5.30/km, with the idea to pick it up in the second half. Lap one of four, no problem. I ate some gels. I drank some electrolytes. I got into a nice little running pack and was concentrating well. No problem.
Lap two, no worries either. The running course in Busso is also dead flat and had no obstacles to speak of. Then as I ran through the transition/finish area, a strange thing happened. My legs started to hurt. Not in an injury type of way but in an all-consuming dull pain where every muscle fibre begins to send complaining signals. Five minutes later, and it was worse. Five minutes after that and it was worse still with my stomach now turning upside down and rejecting any thought of a gel. The little group I was with was suddenly running the opposite way and I could see I had slowed to the pace of a wounded soldier.
And then I reached it. I had always thought this place was that of legends, the place in no-man’s land where no sane soldier ventured lest he not be heard of again. Some say this place doesn’t exist away from the fables we tell our children and is still mythical in many parts of the world like the chupacabra or the unicorn. This is the place beyond the red zone. It is the infamous, the legendary, the mysterious… the “Black Zone”.
This is the place where your ear lobes hurt and your teeth feel like they’re falling out. It’s where all your inner demons appear, your phobias return and the pretend friend you had as child starts to talk to you again. And he says STOP.
STOP. STOP. STOP. Stop running. Take a breather. Take a walk. Just a little walk. Just a tiny itsy bitsy walk and all the pain will go away. Just one wafffer thin mint. Lollipops. Ice cream. Chocolate. All free today. The voices get louder and louder until you know with certainty the men in white coats will be taking you away at the finish line and it won’t be for a cold coca cola.
Except I have 20 kilometres still to run and walking now will kill any hope of a PB. I trotted on. One lesson I learned years ago is when the wobbles start, don’t stop running. Shuffle like an Uncle, do something. Just don’t stop running. But five minutes later, I walked through the aid station and it was the start of the run-walk sequence every runner dreads.
There was no instant return. The rhythm had gone, the energy had gone, my stomach was in knots. I felt dead. I wanted to go home. How could it be that I spent so much time training for these past few months and repeated – in fact probably did more than – last year’s training programme and felt so good less than an hour ago?
I started to think about my training. Had I done enough solo cycling this time round and maybe exhausted myself on the bike leg without knowing it? My bike mileage charts were similar so nothing doing there and I’d done much more running, especially the long runs. Evidence starts to point to nutrition but I ate exactly the same as last year the week before, the day before…during the race? Not quite I think. Last year I had 16 gels between the start and finish; this year, just six because my stomach was churning at the thought of them.
My good buddy Evan Gallagher suggested the next day that my lack of hobbling around showed there was nothing wrong with my fitness and maybe I needed more carbs on the day. It’s possible then I needed to eat more on the five hours on the bike but I’ll never really know for sure.
Back on the run, my struggles continued for an entire lap. First my sub 10.45 hopes went. Then my sub 11 hours hopes went too; then the PB went and I was stuck with just getting home.
10km to go: run for three minutes, walk for two. I’m feeling sick and my mouth is dry in the barren south-west Australia air.
8km to go: I get it back a little and start to jog but take an extended walk through the aid station.
6km to go: last turn around point approaching. At least I know I’ll make it.
4km to go: Determined now to drive it home and I take the last walk through the last-but-one aid station.
2km to go: I’ll make it but there isn’t the sense of accomplishment I had last year.
The finish shoot. Fewer people in the shoot this year to high five me down the line. It’s a reflection of the 30 more minutes I’ve taken which probably see a large group of people finishing but also less to cheer about from me. I had a goal and I’ve missed it. There’s no dressing it up. So if I were to get my A-Level exam result back, I missed my grade I was after.
And yet despite the niggling feeling of disappointment, I’ve got to keep reminding myself that these things ain’t easy and five days later, I’m still not fully recovered so at least I know I gave it everything I had. The pizza and Pepsi in the finishing area was just as good as last year, so too were the catchers who helped me feel like I’d arrived back in my home trenches and the medal is already hanging loud and proud at home.
The best Pepsi ever?
Thanks to all those who made me swim faster, pedal harder, or run more efficiently…for a while anyway…the motivational swim coach at Metasport, the scene in Jaws where the dude has to swim to what’s left of the pier, my pretend friend, the childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the BAMF Neil Pryde Bayamo, the SMRT bus driver who let me on for free when I couldn’t complete my practice run, the Direct Asia-ANZA cycling team for making the rides hard. It was all fun.
Am I going to do another ironman? And go through all that again? No chance. No way. 100%, “no”.
And then I look at those pictures. And I start to think.