I recall reading somewhere that deep in the ego-driven brains of elite athletes an unusually high percentage host almost delusional qualities. At times, I’de have to throw myself in that basket of basket cases. A primary triathlon example being that when first dabbling with triathlon and relatively terrible at swimming, cycling and running I decided that I was going to turn pro at this sport. Reflecting on that decision, I’m grateful that I did decide that was going to be the case but what an idiotic notion!
Perhaps I was very lucky that my ambition matched some physical ability or potentially it’s more a case of an obstinate and ignorant belief driving persistent hours of hard training over several years. Hard to know but I can be sure that without ‘belief’, no matter how misguided, my life would be quite different. Likely not worse, as my lack of intelligence is compensated by a solid worth ethic and residence in one wealthiest countries in the world, but certainly different.
I’ve learnt to sit tight and enjoy the professional triathlete roller coaster ride gradually working out ways to maintain perspective when it’s all going well and methods of turning things around when it’s all going rather crap. Maintaining perspective when the results are flowing is easy, as I have a wife, family and best friends who are always supportive of my career choice but really don’t give a toss about how fast I’m currently moving from A to B. I like it that way. However as a fiercely competitive person, that unconditional love doesn’t necessarily help me out of feeling very frustrated when I’m performing below my own expectations. The persistent belief and ambition that I started the sport with has never really faded and is still the major driving force behind not accepting performances below my own perceived potential.
Part of maintaining the belief is finding excuses for why the race/s didn’t go so well. The simple fact might be and often is, that the competition is simply better. However as an athlete, if you accept that their dominance is a permanent fixture then why even line up next time around? I know how tiring listening to other people’s race day excuses are (I’ve coached for a while now..) and very few people care or need to hear it. However, I’m adamant that for an athlete to improve it’s a vital process to sift through the litany of excuses, identify which are actually plausible reasons and take steps to eliminate the excuse if possible.
So as painful as hearing them are, perhaps excuses are necessary. How else would you take steps to better performances. I guess what isn’t necessary is having to tell the reasons to other people and always acknowledge that other guys were better on the day.
All this is a long-winded way of apologising in advance for my upcoming solid word count of excuses. However this is a blog and no one is forcing you to read this self-absorbed dribble!
Ironman 70.3 St George, U.S 70.3 Championships
With new sponsors and motivation to burn, the year started off as I’de hoped. We knocked off 3 races by February in an attempt to satiate my love of racing before the hard training began. While fairly minimal, the training was very consistent and high quality. The form progressed rapidly. 5th at the Asia Pacific Championship despite missing the front swim group was pleasing. I followed up with two 2nd place finishes. With some racing out of the way the plan was then to get stuck into the real deal training for my first proper peak of the year, Ironman 70.3 St George.
To keep my excuses to a minimum, I hope it was a case of simply not having done the work required to compete with one of the best quality fields Ive raced against. I was hit by a drugged driver at 100km/h+ and then sickness had taken important weeks out of the prep. When I did get a few good weeks of training in I wasn’t able to get into a time trial position until very close to the race. However, being the delusional guy I am, I figured that I would still feature in the mix while reality dictated that if you’re even slightly off you’re likely not going to be in the top 10 against such incredible athletes.
The water was crystal clear but breathtakingly cold. We were given ample time to warm up and shake the ice cream headache. I started the swim well locking onto Bevan Docherty’s feet for the first 500m, in awe of his ability to put a 2m gap into me at every buoy turn. Once the front group was clearly established the pace settled and I kept glancing ahead as I thought for sure the pace was too slow for this to be the lead raft of swimmers. It became apparent that that such was the brutality of the course that the gun swimmers, apart from Andy Potts, saw no sense in smoking the swim and then riding in front of the main pack only to be swallowed up and spat out before the run began.
Joe Gambles took off early and discarding my pre-race plan to conserve energy in the group based on my training leading in, anxiety got the better of me I set about alternating turns on the front with Brent McMahon. By 30kms the group had been whittled down to about 10 guys however the St George bike course is as beastly as it is beautiful and almost like an Ironman the race really doesn’t begin until the back third of the ride. With my limited time in the TT position I was starting to struggle by 70kms wishing I had played it smarter early on. A combination of my lack of technical skills, lack of race fitness and the quality of the guys I was riding with meant a lot of surging to get back to the group and by the 3rd or 4th bridge I couldn’t do it again and hovered a couple of hundred metres behind until the final large descent where I lost over a minute. At 63kgs I needed to be with the group on that final descent as when you’re going 80km/h + riding in a group, even 10 metres apart pays huge dividends. I entered transition a couple of minutes down and my coach hollered at me to play it cool, reminding me I had an Ironman in two weeks. He both knew I had to be off the bike with the leaders to truly compete. There was no catching such brilliant runners ahead and little to achieve breaking the body down on straight uphill then downhill run. While I wasn’t going full gas, I was still pushing solid but really didn’t have the pop in my legs I would have liked. I’m not confident I would have run well regardless of if I’de given everything I had. However for my egos sake let’s stick to the lack of run speed as clever decision to ensure solid recovery time with the hope of resurrecting an ok result at Ironman Texas, in the process ticking off the required Ironman to ensure Hawaii qualification.
The times the top guys ran was spectacular. With great points on offer and a lot of the field planning on qualifying for Kona with as few a full distance Ironman events as possible it was a real battle for every place in the top 10. Special mention to guys like McMahon, Gambles, Hoffman and Yoder who really rode hard the entire way not scared to put it out there on the front of the group or solo.
A quick focus shift. I’ve been at the triathlon game a while now so getting a solid top 8 result at an Ironman off 70.3 training should be possible right? Incorrect assumption.
Ironman Texas was the new target for turning trip 2/5 of 2014 to the U.S a success. I knew my cycling wasn’t up to scratch and if the cycling isn’t up to scratch, it doesn’t matter how good you’re running in training, the run is where poor cycling fitness smacks you on the backside. Luckily I still had enough of my little reservoir of delusional belief floating around to line up on the start line with ambitious hopes of pulling something special out of the bag.
The Woodlands sits about an hour out of Houston. A melting pot of nationalities mostly working in the gas and oil sector who despite coming from all around the world seem to only be allowed to move there if they meet the high standards of Texan friendliness and hospitality. Case in hand, I stayed with an Aussie couple, Luke and Yolanda Mace who offered there place for me to stay. Only once I got there did I discover Yolanda was 8.5 months pregnant, they were staying in a small temporary apartment, had only moved there a week before me and had bought a bed for the spare room just because they knew I was coming. I was unworthy but very grateful.
Local pro, Balazs Csoke had me trembling in fear on previous encounters because his thick Hungarian accent sounded so angry making me think he was set to grab the closest human or animal and fling them across the room. Yet, the two weeks I was there I discovered he’s not angry in the slightest and actually one of the most affable, generous people I’ve got to know. Second in charge only to the Mayor of Houston, Balazs was amazing in helping me complete some of the best training I had done in a while including my longest ride the Saturday before the race. In recognition of his service I spent an hour practicing how to pronounce his name and got it out correctly at least twice the day before I left.
The Ironman Texas course is stunning with the minor exception of the swim. I had a good start and was surprised to pull away with a select few athletes who a year ago I would have struggled to hang onto. A change to my current wetsuit sponsor and open water technique paying off. Once the gap was opened to the chase group the pace settled and I was able to exit with Docherty, Csoke and Diederan in 48 mins flat with only Brandon Marsh 90 seconds up the road.
As I found my legs on the bike, I kept running the distance in my head as a constant reminder that my common tactic of blasting myself for the first hour is straight up dumb and I really needed to wait to see how the race plays out. After rolling along quite socially, Rapp caught us an hour in and I figured I should go with the race and lift to his speed once again turning my back on smarter pre race tactics. Docherty and Diederan thought the same while Csoke cleverly opted to stick to his race plan. I enjoyed the lift in speed as I knew that at some point my endurance was going to fail me and figured I would likely have a blow out on the back half of the run and needed a buffer on the chase pack behind. I arrogantly assumed that as I would likely be cooked from the ride I would likely only run somewhere around the 3 hr mark so a 10 minute buffer on the chasers behind seemed like the right thing to do.
Approximately half way through the ride I was awarded a 4 minute penalty when I made a move to overtake and move to the front of the small group. I fell short of overtaking one of the athletes involved within 25 seconds. I felt strongly that the athlete made the poor decision to drastically increase their speed upon awareness of me overtaking them but the call was upheld and I later found out that the official believed the athlete increased their speed only after I had already reached the 25 second point which makes it a legitimate decision. Regardless, I have a temper when I feel things are not fair and found it very difficult to swallow my absolute fury at what I viewed as poor sportsmanship. I spent the next 30 minutes surging back and forth from the group to the official trying to argue my point but the official while being very understanding and generous in listening to my argument correctly stuck to his decision. I still struggle to understand why someone overtaking receives the same punishment for exceeding 25 seconds as someone who is drafting as the rules in the U.S dictate that you cannot slipstream to make the pass so the passer is really not receiving any benefit. I’ve since contacted the athlete involved and I accept that while it was his intention to hurt me while I was overtaking it was not his intention for me to be penalised. I took the penalty at the 140km mark and watched quite a few guys roll on by. Once I jumped back on the bike I deservedly started cramping down the inside thighs, I’m assuming due to my lack of specific Ironman specific conditioning or perhaps because I exceeded the correct intensity in portions of the ride.
I moved through first lap of the run ok. By the second lap the cramps were back but I was able to get going again the few times that they brought me to a halt. Regardless of the cramps I was not running well. Just surviving the miles. The third lap was a complete shuffle and a lot of aid station walking. Strangely enough, this lap was also where I actually started to enjoy myself out there despite the plodding pace. I was overcome by a strange affinity to the communal suffering with the many hundreds of athletes around me. A nice reminder of how fortunate we are that to experience genuine struggle and unity with others we have to sign up for these extreme endurance events. Perhaps an Ironman experience explains why when I’ve travelled to 3rd world countries that often, despite their poverty and endless struggle, the sense of family and community is noticeably present and uplifting. Despite more stopping with cramps, I enjoyed the final miles and got myself across the finish line. While hardly the auspicious occasion I had dreamt of in my first Ironman completed as a pro, it was mission accomplished as my ranking should now be sufficient to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in October.
I was really pleased to see Bevan Docherty take line honours with a perfectly well-rounded performance. Huge thank you again to Luke and Yolanda, Balazs the angry Hungarian and to Lars Finanger who was unthinkably generous with his time and support throughout my time in Texas.
A slow marathon has left me feeling pretty good so I’ll see some of you up at one of my favourite events, Ironman 70.3 Cairns.