Let me paint you a picture. You are bobbing around in the ocean before the sun has risen. Everyone is silent in the dull morning light. Rising and falling as you tread water in the swell which rolls past you. The thousands of other competitors and spectators watching the professional start from the beach are forgotten. The entire focus is on the giant orange buoys anchored somewhere on the horizon – for they are not giant from where you are. The race director begins to deliver instructions over the megaphone which breaks the otherwise serene moment. As race start draws near your body temperature is falling but your adrenalin is keeping you alert and on task.
The announcement that race start is less than a minute away makes the anticipation all but tangible. Without warning the siren blares and pandemonium ensues. The ocean’s silky smooth surface becomes white water as the professional field relentlessly pound the surface in an all out sprint. Following suit you desperately try to follow the lead swimmers amongst chaos. After years of training all targeted towards race day it takes less than two minutes to be wishing you could just stop. The intensity of the professional start is something I never experienced as an amateur. You are working on your absolute limit which isn’t entirely comfortable in itself but swimming, by nature, is also done on limited oxygen. The effect is akin to drowning. Even if you are lucky enough to not be swallowing actual water you are rapidly accumulating an oxygen debt which is slowly but surely turning your body into a lead weight as the lactic acid seeps through every muscle fibre. You push on, it would be great to hit pause, stop swimming and get to take deep breaths but in terms of the race, it is now or never. Sadly I’m losing the physiological (and perhaps even the mental) battle and I’ve let the swimmer in front venture into the wide blue yonder without me. A small gap quickly becomes a gaping chasm where your hopes and dreams for the day disappear into a bottomless void of despair.
All of that is to say that the opening stages of the swim leg are VERY important. After the disaster that was my swim leg in Melbourne I needed (for my mental health) to return to a strong swim performance for the 10th running of Huskisson’s long course triathlon. Having been eighth and the first amateur two years running I was looking to move up, preferable into the top five who would be remunerated for their efforts. Having seen the start list two things stood out. No defending champions were toeing the line and the majority of competitors were decorated short course athletes stepping up to the longer distance for their first time. That means that the swim is guaranteed to be quick and if they were to get away bringing back a big group of athletes on the bike would be unlikely. However, I believed that despite their running prowess over shorter distances it would be experience that should hold me in good stead in the backend of the run. First and foremost it would be great to swim with the lead group. Failing that I’d need to minimise my losses over the first two legs to have a chance on the run. If the gap was out to three minutes it would a challenging but possible to pick up some people. More than that and my aspirations would stay as delusions of grandeur.
Having swum reasonably well at the Husky ocean swim on the Friday prior I was feeling positive. I lost a fair bit of time in that event but it was largely due to being directionally challenged. Not to mention swimming over some unforgiving coral. I’ve largely summed up my feelings on the swim thus far but I can’t help having a gripe about the start now. It just doesn’t pay to do the right thing. To say we were waiting on the start line is a completely inaccurate representation of where the professionals were. We were treading water about 10 metres past it and were instructed (as we always are) to move back. The usual threat is that the event goes all day and the start can be delayed until we comply. I figured I’d start the trend by moving back to the line. Sadly my status as a neo-pro meant I was ignored by the field and only had a few companions on the actual start line. Instructions to move back continued and I waited idly facing the director rather than looking towards where I was meant to be going. The majority of the field was about 4-5 meters ahead of the start line when the siren unexpectedly went. Now I’m all for the unexpected start but I really thought we were waiting for everyone to make it back to the line. Was this race changing? Probably not, and I’d be arrogant to argue that it was but I will say that in a discipline where I’m already the weakest, starting on the back foot by any amount doesn’t help. I think the initial efforts to try and get back in touch with the group compounded the aforementioned sensation that I was drowning. Despite my melodramatic musings earlier the swim was not all bad. I ended up in the second group and came out of the water feeling comfortable and only a minute behind the first group (with a few another 30 seconds off the front). I didn’t recognise many of my fellow competitors but I did know David Mainwaring. He has out swum and out biked me before enroute to winning Murray Man in 2013. He never loses much time in the swim so I knew it couldn’t be all that bad. The group was quick to get out of the water but then began dawdling. I made my way through and was the first back to my bike. I exited transition with those guys and although I lost a little time mounting the bike I was certain I could catch them.
I was excited to be in a group of five, this boded well for a good bike where we would potentially not lose much time to the leaders. We lost our first member on the third corner, his water bottle came out and he made the dubious decision to throw a U-turn and retrieve it at such a critical point in the race. I then noted that two of the other guys were riding road bikes and starting to struggle to keep David in check on the relative flat. Now I know that Husky has its hills but a road bike is not the correct piece of equipment. I moved passed them and set off to chase down a now sizeable gap to David. Our super group had quickly been whittled down to two. At least I had the person I wanted to race with in my sights. The first lap went by in a blur of pain as I fought to find my cycling legs whilst closing the gap to David. I took a turn on the front and then tried to keep with him coming back into town. From this point on I was largely setting the pace. It was frustrating as to have any chance we needed to work smoothly together to extract every extra watt of power afforded by the small advantage that riding on the 12 meter draft zone (the distance you need to be behind the closest rider) yields. Instead I found myself often either setting the pace for long periods or chasing madly from 50m-100m behind to counter seemingly illogical surges in pace. Turned out David had his own agenda. Having been injured recently he was there to swim and bike as hard as possible with no view to run. And as it went the first lap of the bike was at maximum and after that he was contemplating pulling the pin. Getting back into the race was not on his mind.
Halfway through the bike Adam Gordon sailed by with a comment about my fetching pink attire. It was another now or never moment as I fought really hard to keep with him. I owe almost an entire 25km of pacework to him, I did have two forays at the front but both were short lived. In fairness we were poorly paired, Adam is a big guy who dominates the flats and downhills whilst my smaller frame allows me to feel relatively comfortable on the one prolonged uphill that the course has to offer. Over the last 20k Adam rode away from me but I kept him in sight for as long as I could and moved myself well clear of anyone else. I came into T2 feeling good about the bike. I had no idea what time I’d ridden or of my power output as my GPS unit decided at 5:40 that morning was a good time to freeze. It turned out that my bike split was a single second shy of what I did last year but I really felt like I worked a lot harder and rode well. The conditions didn’t seem difficult but I know many people who were quite a few minutes slower than previous years. But then again the eventual race winner Sam Appleton rode over five minutes quicker than anyone has ever done before. It is probably the greatest display of cycling strength that I have witnessed firsthand.
Knowing that Adam ran just as fast as I did in Melbourne I chose to forgo socks in case the fifteen seconds that was saved became crucial. I was hoping to be five minutes behind the lead at this point although when I passed Appleton coming back into town on the run course I knew the gap was larger. In fact it was almost inconceivably huge at twelve minutes. I was also six minutes behind the group of seven predominately short course athletes. This was well outside of the three minutes I’d hoped for. There was almost no way I’d move up more than one or two spots. Time seemed to crawl but at the next turnaround (10km) I had closed significantly on the six minute group. Nevertheless I was still way behind and I had only made up a negligible amount of ground on Adam. Over the next 5k I worked hard knowing that those athletes starting to flag would probably come back by the end. Sixth or seventh would be possible and a decent result after being tenth off the bike. Around 12k people started to come back to me and once I started passing them I was moving up rapidly. I even passed Adam to move into fifth. I then spotted Nuru Somi who I have had great battles with not far ahead. I had not expected to catch him and a shot at fourth was suddenly not only possible but probable. With 5k to go I was in that position but fairly resigned to missing the podium. Lindsey Wall was just too far ahead at the final turnaround. I kept running to keep those behind me at bay but the impetus to push on really leaves you when you no longer believe you can catch those ahead. I finished up pretty spent and two minutes behind Wall who was in turn ninety seconds behind second place Alex Reithmeier. Although I was a minute outside of my run time from last year I’d managed to put myself up into the money and claim the days fastest run. It has been a while between fastest run splits at major races so it is nice to have my first one since becoming a professional.
So that concludes my experimental three weeks period containing two races. Challenge Melbourne was ugly and resuming full training shortly afterwards really delayed my recovery. Nevertheless I pushed through in the name of science and stupidity to arrive at the race feeling like I was 90%. It is hard to say if I raced at that or my full 100%, particularly when my GPS/Power unit failed me. However I did give 100% of what I had and I’m super excited to have turned the negative result in Melbourne around. With five weeks to Challenge Batemans Bay my swim needs to be that little bit better. Can it be done by then? I don’t have the answers, endurance sports are about time by definition. The only thing I know for sure is that my body is demanding rest and I’d be crazy to ignore this again. So for this week I’ll be preparing for Batemans Bay by staying close to the couch. The perfect preparation? Time will tell.