Last year the Las Vegas course crushed me without the slightest hint of sympathy. Crushed, but not dead, I took what I learnt and vowed to come back and at least give a worthy fight in 2013.
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I realised that to successfully survive this course I needed to make some big changes. First, unlike 2012, I would skip Hy Vee 50150 U.S Olympic Distance Championships the week prior. With a couple of exceptions to the rule I noted how many guys, including myself, drastically under-performed last year trying to back-up from this event. Even with a flatter course this year, the same problem proved to be true. Some of the guys who I think could dominate on this tough course such as Greg Bennet, Barney Matthews and many more were not where they should have been across the finish line. It’s a tough predicament. The money at Hy Vee is hugely enticing, but for me, the dream of winning world titles will always win over cash.
Next, I needed to try a new coaching direction to make me stick to my plans, not get enticed into over-racing and build my training to peak for the races that count. Enter Matt Dixon. Some changes were made to the program and in-line with my training logs and results from the past, less training with greater quality is proving a good recipe. While I don’t believe this works for all athletes – in particular those guys with more diesel-type engines – I do think that combined with the large aerobic base that I have built up over the years following the Grant Giles/Arthur Lydiard principles coupled with my inability to lie on the couch between sessions, that it’s the right formula for me. I’m not necessarily racing much less as I still have to race a lot to make a living at this stage of my career. However the races were often built into the training program and race tactics were followed to get through some events with as little damage as possible. Finally, we recognised that the strong guys prevailed on this course and so my training leading in was built around handling hot conditions and very hilly terrain at steady but very sustainable speeds.
Race morning and bloody hell I was nervous. The field for this race was the best I’ve lined up against. It’s the great compromise between the ridiculous duration of Ironman and the ridiculous speed of ITU (Olympic format) and nearly everyone who is or was dominant in one of the formats had qualified and looked in peak shape.
Adding to the nerves, Vegas pulled a swifty on race day providing steady rain throughout the morning. I was confident I could make the main front group in the swim. Historically I tend to swim much better non-wetsuit relative to wetsuit and I had enough adrenalin pumping through me to not take the soft option when things would get uncomfortable.
Despite the first few swim freaks taking off early the other major players seemed to be together. The pace settled in the swim after about 750m once the group leaders realised that there everyone was hanging on and the lead few including, Amberger, Potts and O’Donnell et al were not going to be caught. Onto the bike things were immediately sketchy in the wet. I steadily made my to the front of the main group on the first big climb as I hate descending in the wet and knew I would lose some places given my inappropriate gear ratio.
I’m fairly anxious about bike penalties so was leaving a little more than required distance to avoid creeping into the draft zone which so easily happens on big undulations. Unfortunately with so many quality athletes, as soon as anyone opens up a gap more then 10m someone else will go round and slot in. Steadily as I started being pushed backwards through the field. By the 40kms I was in the back third of the main pack and not enjoying the style of riding at all. My power was alternating from 350-400watts at a very high cadence, to 200 watts over and over. I now understood what Pete Jacobs was talking about when he said he found it easier riding at the front of the group in Hawaii then sitting in the middle. Sure, your average power is lower then being at the front but you’re constantly dipping over anaerobic threshold and then recovering in a series of sprints. I found it difficult as my training involves so much time sitting just below at threshold at steady state power.
At approximately 60kms there is a big long climb out of the National Park back on to the main road and I knew I had to get back to the front where I could ride the way I like to. With the length of the group hitting transition at the back would result in a 30-60 second deficit starting the run. I started a long grind, going way deeper into reserves then I would have liked. I knew that I was harming my run to get back to the front of the group but saw that as a better alternative then starting the run in 35th place. With the rules stating that you have to go all the way to the front if there is no 10m space to slot into between riders I knew I had to continue to the front of the group or I would be penalised. It’s a tricky rule which I think discourages riders from overtaking, as it becomes such a risky process should the front guys speed up and you’re left having entered the overtaking zone but not completing a pass with 25 seconds. Thankfully Championship races have officials like Jimmy Riccitello with vast professional racing experience who also take into account ‘intent’ which is hugely important.
Back at the front I set about enjoying steady state power again and started to feel good. Hitting transition at the font of the group proved hugely valuable as I exited with former 70.3 World Champs Terenzo Bozzone and Andy Potts, Olympic gold medallist Jan Frodeno, Swiss Olympian Rudi Wild and one of the best in the business, Joe Gambles.
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The run course is 3 loops of one gradual climb. So you’re either running up or down a big, long gradual hill. Having run side-by-side with Terenzo twice this year already, he showed he was a better hill runner than me, whilst I felt I had a very slight edge on the flats. So when Frodeno bolted off at 3 min/k pace with Terenzo in tow, given the hilly terrain I figured it smart to stick to the game plan and run my own race.
I stayed fairly relaxed and moved past Gambles early with Rudi pulled alongside me. As soon as I hit the turn around at approximately 3kms and started going up hill I had the hugely frustrating inner thigh cramps that have been plaguing me all season. I had to back off the pace and Gambles bounded ahead on his way to a beautifully paced run. Thankfully with these cramps I can still keep running I just can’t sit in 5th gear or they totally seize up so I hung tough in 4th gear. As soon as I got to the down hill several kilometres later they disappeared. This process continued for the entire run. I would make up a lot of time on the gradual descent and then try and hold on for the long uphill with my inner thighs twitching in and out of a cramped state. By the second lap Frodeno had pulled out with cramps and I had overtaken Rudi.
Onto the third lap and I pulled up along side Andy Potts very excited about the prospect of 4th place, but yet again had to slow down with cramps on the uphill as he eased slightly ahead. The third loop the cramps were the worst they had been and I could see a bunch of guys pulling very close behind including Leon Griffin and Kevin Collington. I knew I just had to get to the downhill again and then the cramps would go and I could keep the gap to hold onto a top-5 finish. As I turned at the top of the run course for the final two kilometres down to the finish I gave Collington and Griffo, who had closed to within seconds of me, a big cheeky smile of relief as I knew I could go back up to full pace and hold on for 5th.
Thank you to my sponsors who continue to support and believe. Also huge thanks to my family and friends who came and watched or sent nice messages.
By far the biggest thank you goes to my amazing wife, Monica.