My trajectory as a Triathlete has been fairly linear. I’ve improved consistently and disappointing results thus far have been limited to podium finishes at world championships that I had hoped to win. Having been dominant as an amateur I resolved to never be beaten by a non professional once I moved into that category. I’ve always thought it a little embarrassing when you see a professional athlete way down the finishers list. I mean you are either a professional who can make the grade or you are not. Finishes like that strongly suggest the latter. I never gave a second thought to those in the latter category until now. Granted we all have bad days but as a professional you feel like your lowest moments are being held under a rather bright spot light (particularly when you wear the attire I do). The experience – and I choose that word carefully as disaster sounds a touch negative – that was Challenge Melbourne left me with a lot more empathy for those professionals finishing some way down the overall list. In Oxfords Triathlon edition a bad day is defined as getting dropped by the group during the swim. It means that by the time you exit the water the rest of the field is working together on the bike at a frenetic pace. You can try your best but unless you are Sebastian Kienle they are going to move away from you with ease. By the time you get to the run it may be possible to pick up some of the pieces from the explosion that has been building within your fellow competitors. However it is just as likely that you’ll be running in vain. All of this raises questions about the sense in continuing. Before I launch into the lessons learnt on a cold, wet, and windy race day at Challenge Melbourne the days prior deserve a mention.
For the first time ever I had sponsorship commitments prior to racing. Many of my sponsors are Melbourne based so it racing there gave me a rare opportunity to see them. On Friday I went into 2XU’s head office to pick up my latest custom race kit and have a meeting about a continued partnership. Saturday was a busier one with a short and informal meeting with Ryan Twist from Bayswater Foot and Ankle Clinic. As a fellow Triathlete our meeting was arranged at the modest time of 0645 in order to coincide with an open water swim. I like to think the open road and oceans are my boardroom so it was nice for actual business to collide with this notion. From there it was into the city for a photo shoot with Pro4mance. Perhaps I should have told them I can’t smile on queue? It was a great experience though and I produced my best “Blue Steel” whilst posing with fellow Pro4mance athlete Mark Simpson’s bike (which suited my outfits colour better than mine). It was also great to meet the Pro4mance team and discuss social media in the world of tomorrow. With race check in and a bike build to do in the afternoon all of these commitments left me a little busier than normal leading up to a race. Nevertheless I felt fantastic, training had been quite strong and I was looking forward to racing hard and fast on Beach road regardless of the forecast rain.
I leapt out of bed on race morning and launched myself at the curtain. I pulled it aside with great anticipation and was relieved to find that the weather was gloomy but not wet. The short jog that ensued proved to be a windy affair although I didn’t think much of it. I was preoccupied by the rain that had started falling and the ominous clouds that came into view as the sun rose. The rain was clearly visible under the floodlights in the transition compound. The wind was blowing a gale and the professionals were milling around waiting for the cancellation of the swim. The cancellation never came. In what was unexpectedly cold conditions I ran up and down the beach doing jumping jacks to try and keep warm. The plastic bags on my feet which I was using as insulation attracted more than few sideways looks. I left it to the final three minutes to have a splash in the bay and turn the arms over. Enough to get the feel and short enough time span to avoid getting cold. However the start was delayed by 15 minutes as the swim team struggled to anchor down a multitude of coloured buoys in the bucking bay.
I used to think the professional athletes must know it all. They race often and have done so for a long time. It is not true. It was 10 minutes after the scheduled start and we were still discussing where on earth the course actually went. We’d all assumed it was a rectangular swim only to find out that it was a block shaped M course. There were white, pink and yellow buoys which signaled different things but they were only sporadically visible when they crested a wave. By the time we actually started confusion was still rife. I got out well in one of my best beach starts to date, unfortunately it was all downhill from there. I hadn’t been swimming quite as well as previously and in these sort of conditions I felt like a rag doll as I flailed my arms wildly, swallowed water and sighted with my head so far out of the water I may as well have been swimming vertically. You would be split from the group as a wave crested in front of you and be pushed way behind before getting the opposite scenario which would send you face first into someone’s eight beat kick. It was ugly, I kept my goggles but lost the group in no time.
There were four of us off the back it was disturbing how in an instant we couldn’t see anyone else out there. This is strange. Normally you can see the splashes up ahead even if you are losing group rapidly. The block M shaped course was a complicated one and had far too many out, across and back sections. As a group we stopped numerous times to ask paddleboards which way to head. At one point we swam headlong into the shore bound lead trio. We were so far off course that the rescue motorboat cut us off and directed us back to the course. It was a case of the blind leading the blind and I think we all knew the race was long gone. Our group split on the way back in, I finally decided to take my own line. I knew that the finish shoot lined up with a tall monument on the land and swam for that rather than the buoys. I gained 30 seconds on the rest of the group in the dying stages of the swim. I hit the shore cold, disorientated and disappointed but perhaps it wasn’t over yet.
I hit transition with my wetsuit still on. The wind had blown the quick release zip to the opposite side of my body and with my cap and goggles in one hand I couldn’t reach it with the other. It was a slow transition and to add insult to injury I have my helmet already clipped together. With numb fingers it was a comedy of errors. Thankfully my 30 second lead out of the water meant I still got out onto the bike ahead of my compatriots. I took my time clipping in and figured I’d get comfortable and ride with the guys behind me when they caught up. A great plan which I then failed to execute as they sailed by me one after the other. My power was laughable and my bad hamstring painfully stiff and tight. For once I was comfortable riding in the rain but it was only to replaced by a new fear. The wind was treating my bike like a sail which made it really dangerous and difficult to control in aero position. In fairness this is my deficiency, I have never ridden into crosswinds like that and I lacked the confidence in my bike handling skills to do so effectively. I rode the first lap in aero but found that I was unable to concentrate on putting down power (or what little I had to offer) due to the fear of crashing at 40-50kph. I rode the last two laps holding onto the brake leavers and leaning down as low as I could get to minimise the aerodynamic mess I was making of the machine. Unfortunately the trade off for aerodynamic stability was a very sore back. Each lap the futility of my position became more apparent and although I was getting slightly quicker with every 15k split as I warmed up I was still well down on power and pace. I never quit and couldn’t justify on this day. After all the best training for the conditions I was facing was to keep riding in them. Although I’d be lying if I didn’t spend time calculating at what angle I’d have hit the odd pieces of gravel by the side of the road in order to have a mechanical reason to withdraw from the race.
By the time I hit the run the heavens were still wide open and everything was saturated. As I popped on my saturated socks I wondered if they were likely to give me more or less blisters. Having barely staved off hypothermia on the bike it was time to warm up. I was 4 minutes behind the next group but the conditions meant I should be able to run fast despite the nature of the run course. One kilometre into it and I knew it was not going to be my day. The first lap of three went by in a shambles of hobbling around between calls of nature. Thankfully it did at least warm my body and allow my back to loosen up. I started moving well on the second lap and for the first time that day I felt good. I clipped along at a good pace and started to feel positive about catching the people that were now more than 4 minutes ahead. Unfortunately my golden period only lasted that one lap. At least for that period I was getting along as the 3rd fastest man on course. The last lap was…well, much better than the first and far from a disaster but I was done with fast running. It was part physical and part mental. It is tough to lay it all down for the entire length of the race and simply go backwards.
It was a very emotional day and massive downer to finish in 24th place and as the last professional (although many pulled out en route). But what can you do? I know I don’t cope well in the cold and I was never going to race at my peak when it was all I could do to fend off hypothermia but I also made many other errors. Most notably in my surf swimming preparation and with my ability to ride in crosswinds. These I will go away and work on. As for preparing my physiology to fight the cold? Well in similar conditions I’ll be leaving my swim cap on for insulation during the bike next time (seriously). There are some other pre race things I can and will do but I wake up thankful everyday that the world championships are held in Hawaii during summer.
Thankfully there was a silver lining to a day at the school of hard knocks. I awoke tired, stiff and sore the next morning to find a pretty awesome photograph posted under Challenge Family’s Monday motivator. It was of one of one of the red capped professional athletes poised to catch a wave into the swim exit. The caption read “It is hard to beat someone who doesn’t give up”. A closer look at the facial expression and goggle choice revealed that it was indeed me. Beyond being chuffed that I had been chosen as Challenge’s poster boy for the week I thought that the tag line would have been rather ironic if I had stepped off the course at any stage. Even though it may not make sense to give it my all when nothing can be gained (and with Huskisson long course in 3 weeks) I don’t ever want to be the guy that quits. Quitting is habit and I don’t want to flirt with it. I’ll always do my best and to take the advice handed down in my poster, never give up.
That said, I’ll be out for redemption in 3 weeks time.