Let’s face it, the dream debut would have been to have dominated the race, walked down the finish chute high-fiving fans and to have felt as fresh as one can after such an effort. But until I relocate to utopia I’ll take my first time professional podium finish. After all I’ve dreamed of being in the champagne shower (or beer as Challenge being a German brand supplies) on the podium for a long time. FYI it’s not as glamorous as it looks and alcohol on a chaffed body really stings. With a strong professional field on the west coast tackling the Mandurah 70.3 professional champs on the same day I’d hoped for a top 5 finish at Challenge Forster. Although once I’d seen the final start list I readjusted my expectations downwards and went back to treating it as a learning experience. Whilst some may argue this, I certainly don’t think that there is a lack of depth on Australia’s long course circuit at the moment.
Crawling my way north in heavy traffic from Sydney to Forster the Friday afternoon prior to race gave me some time to reflect. My preparation had been quite positive. For once I was turning up to a race with niggling injuries subsiding rather than being at breaking point. There were no worries about making the distance in one piece just the uncertainty of racing with the professionals. As an eager beaver I racked my bike first and stood back to see who else would be among the professionals. Over the next 20 minutes one guy turned up. He racked his bike and looked over at mine which was sporting shallow rimmed wheels (not a disk as was the standard) and a tubular tyre taped to the top tube. With a shake of his head he walked off. Clearly being first to rack your bike was not cool, and having a spare tire was against the dress code – after all, if you flat surely its race over? I really wasn’t sure that I belonged.
The pre race press conference which featured the top 3 seeded males and females didn’t help to appease my mind. The audience was awed by tales of training volumes which I was unable to match when I worked as a travelling sales representative. It was interesting to watch and I couldn’t help thinking it’d be great to be invited to a pre race press conference at some stage. Little did I realise that on the race course a mere 12 hours later I’d be running down all three guys who were invited to the conference. The scene was set, the professionals were out in force and I settled into a nervous sleep that night.
It was just before 6am and all the professionals were bobbing around in a giant circle as we waited for instruction. Eventually, and after much encouragement to stay behind the start line we were off. I think I lost a body length in the first five strokes. There were some top swimmers out there and I was preparing myself to be popped off the back very soon after the race start. Thankfully the concertina effect around the first buoy meant I never ended up in real trouble of being dropped. When things settled down I tried to move my way up a few times throughout the swim but it was akin to trying to cut the line at your local medical centre on a busy Sunday “just because”. As such I crossed my fingers and just hoped that if everyone held the persons feet in front we’d all be out together. A misinterpretation of where the swim exit was meant that the first group of swimmers exited early and saved a chunk of time compared to the second group which swam to the actual exit further down. But I didn’t know this at the time so it didn’t phase me. Furthermore the swim was a few minutes short so it probably produced the time gaps you’d expect anyway. At any rate I emerged from the water well down the back of the second group but still in touch – phew!
Into transition I claimed the honour of being one of if not the only professional to place my wetsuit and goggles into the bag assigned to us – not sure that following the rules was paying off here. But I wasn’t last out of T1 so things were looking good until I mounted my bike. My poorly co-ordinated attempt to jam my wet foot into my cycling shoes made me feel incredibly self conscious. Whilst I trundled along at walking pace the race was moving quickly up the road without me. I imagine that it would have been like watching a child try to pack their sleeping bag for the first time – both futile and mildly amusing.
According to my friend Nick Baldwin rules 1, 2 and 3 of professional racing is “Don’t lose the group”. With this in mind I buried myself to pull back the trio up ahead. After arriving there I could just see another trio further down the road. Whilst performing a cost benefit analysis as to whether I should chase I noticed that the guy who had shaken his head at my bike was in my current trio. The analysis went out the window and I spent the next 8 minutes riding well above FTP (If you are not used to “power” talk just read well above FTP as stupidly hard) to jump across to the next group. Upon arrival I collected myself and enjoyed the relative easing of pace. This however was short lived as I was soon asked by one member if I was feeling good. With a thumbs up I was easily persuaded to set the pace. Early on there was a bit of collaboration between two of us but as the ride went on I did the lion share of the work. This was incredibly frustrating as there were a few riders riding solo between us and the lead 3 guys who were flying. It was imperative that we closed them down before they united. I couldn’t believe that our group didn’t manage to do this. Despite coming within 30 seconds we never bridged the gap. I really was dumbfounded by this as I felt that not closing that gap would ultimately resign us to being participants not professional racers. In hindsight I’d like to know if I’d laid it all on the line and tried to close the gap on my own. At the time I was worried about how a second effort above FTP would affect me. As an amateur I always wondered if the professionals drafted given the speed of their bike times. Only now I can start commenting on that. Yes and no. Some people do and it is very frustrating but for the most part what I saw was fair. I do however know that for me to ride quicker than previously I had to ride a much higher wattage than I have previously. Actually racing rather than being an amateur on an all day time trial gives you the incentive and ability to go that bit harder.
The back end of the bike was pretty uneventful and I was left on the front for the final 25-30k back into town. The one heart stopping moment (as described by the head of tri NSW) was when I led our group up to final turn at the same moment that an ambulance was coming down the road. I thought about going through. I could have done so safely and I would have finally split up my group which would have been some payback for all the work I’d done. But it was an emergency service vehicle and the self imposed stop start penalty from 40kph still only cost about 10 seconds.
With the group I came into T2 with heading out before me I was the 11th man onto the run course… and there is no prize money for 11th. 11th goes home with a participation medal and a towel. I settled into my pace on the run and moved away from those who had shadowed me throughout the bike. With Clayton Fettell 9 minutes up the road and looking on the money I thought 5th place was about as it good as it could get. The course wasn’t quite your standard pancake flat affair, rather it made 6 crossings over Forster bridge which in a triathlon counts as hill work. The southern end of course took a scenic detour through some trails for a few kilometres which is highly irregular but most enjoyable. More than halfway through the run and I was up into 5th but trailing forth by over two minutes. Unbeknownst to me things up the road were starting to unravel rather rapidly.
It wasn’t long before I moved up to forth at which point the thought that it was so close yet so far to the podium occurred to me. But I was now in great deal of pain myself and I’d have signed up for 4th prior to the event if the offer was on the table so I had to be happy. Whilst pondering this one of my cycling companions called out “Fettell’s walking, you can catch him!”. Great news right? Wrong, I just wanted to cruise home in as little pain as possible… now it was my duty to chase. As I went I scanned the horizon for the former racer leader who had allegedly come to a grinding holt. With 3k to run I spotted him about 100m up the road and he was certainly not walking. I’m not sure what went on in between sightings but I imagine he’d suffered a rough patch before regaining his composure and returning to running at a solid click. The gap was closing very slowly, now that podium finish really did seem so close yet so far. Hitting the final turnaround I was just about there and soon after made the pass. I didn’t look back and just kept trotting along in damage control knowing that all things being equal I couldn’t blow it now. I didn’t believe it until I got into the finishing chute – and even then I had a moment of panic. As I hit the red carpet I heard a voice directed at someone else calling out “go now, go, go, go”. My panic was short lived as two young girls wearing official gear and trailing bouquets of red balloons sprinted down the chute beside me.
The media frenzy following the race was insane… alright I’m overstating that a little… but I did get to do two recorded interviews a few meet and greets with Challenge staff plus a live chat with the race announcer. At this point It would be doing the men who finished ahead of me a disservice not to mention them. Winner Mitch Robins who made a fantastic comeback to long course racing and essentially did so by putting together a similar race to myself – he just did it a little better on each leg. And runner up Casey Munro who exploited the weaknesses that I have in the swim and bike in order to build an insurmountable lead for the run. Chapo boys, it was a pleasure to throw some beer around with you two.
And now what? Rest. I’ve been pushing the envelope for a while and the timing works out well to have a bit of a rest whilst I finish off my final practical placement for teaching. I’ll most likely venture out to race Callala Bay in December as a form finder and a bit of fun. But until then I’ll have my feet up (for the most part).