Google defines “blues” as: melancholic music or feelings of sadness. Busselton 70.3 certainly invoked some of the latter but the reference to blues is primarily in relation to the colour of the athlete’s skin. The unexpectedly frosty conditions (at least to myself) quickly silenced my ambitions of a high finish as my hypothermic body ground to a halt fifteen minutes into the bike leg. Having rolled around the course for the first of two laps in this state the decision to abandon the race was the only logical one. Nevertheless it was not an easy one and posting my first DNF isn’t something I’m proud of. It has never been what I’m about as a person or an athlete but it wouldn’t have been smart to finish. All of this has provided me with a greater understanding of the professional side of the sport by giving me a variety of things to ponder – many of which I’d like to share. But first lets acknowledge the positive part of the race!
Wandering into the relative warmth of the Indian ocean provided an unexpected relief from the five degree ambient air temperature. Whether you could term the short pre race swim as a warm up is another thing. Returning to the start line on the beach I was comforted by the fact that many of the professional women looked a lot colder than I. While I’ve made my dislike of cold weather racing known, it appears to still be a secret to me. Perhaps I keep putting myself in these positions because of the underlying desire to overcome instead of surrender. Or perhaps I just didn’t expect Western Australia to be cold!
As my first Ironman branded race it was nice to be personally announced as one of the professionals prior to the start. I’m finally being acknowledged alongside those who I’ve dreamt about racing against. The horn sounded and we were off. With hoards of good swimmers in the field it was crucial to be with one of the lead two groups. I quickly found myself behind a wall of athletes who have the speed over fifty metres which I envy. With no room to lengthen my stroke I took the opportunity to adjust my goggles. A small movement taking just a moment in time but also a very dangerous one. I chastised myself for wasting time at arguably the most critical stage of the race. When the athletes started to string out I noticed the swimmers I was behind were losing ground and momentum. With a sizeable gap already open I didn’t hesitate to go around them and try to bridge up to the next athletes. I did this in China with a much larger gap and thankfully it was a case of déjà vu. I settled in quite happily with this faster group just before the halfway point. Two athletes who came across on my feet then began pushing up alongside me and trying to cut into the line for a better position. It was frustrating as I felt that without my assistance their race would be going to ruin in our wake. But, I guess it is professional sport and the courtesy that one affords another at the Woolworths checkout is a little different.
Hitting the shore the frenetic pace that T1 always demands was in play. Flailing around for my wetsuit zipper long after everyone else was half undressed I finally located the release. A quick spurt of speed brought my bike alongside the group. Un-racking my bike I left transition just ahead of James Cunnama (Last I heard of Cunnama was in Vitoria 2012, he was a favourite for the world title after winning Challenge Roth in under 8 hours). I’d had a career best swim and things were going well. My only complaint would have been that my vision was next to zero with my bespoke anti-fog helmet visor failing to live up to its claims. Heading into the rising sun with condensation all over the visor I dreamed of going back to foggy sunglasses that at the very least can be slid to the point of your nose. It was akin to driving into the sunset whilst washing your front window. With a deep breath and the aid of adrenalin I leapt onto my bike for the first time. The joy was short lived as my inability to see my shoes, the road or the barrier which I careened into became a reality. Quickly remounting the bike I didn’t bother berating myself, after all this is the manner in which I’m all too used leaving T1 – I’ll get it right next time, I promise! The first couple of corners which are otherwise straightforward left rights were a major challenge without vision. Riding with my head titled far back in order to see under the visor I can’t imagine that I was looking overly professional. I was also painfully aware that the motorbike official who was following me out onto the course probably shared the opinion. But It didn’t matter I’d swum well (just eighty seconds behind the lead group) and I was having some strange version of fun.
With great effort over the first five kilometres I moved way back towards my swim pack. They went from being tiny figurines backlit by the sun to real people with readable brand names on their suits. At this point your all but back, it is another sixty seconds of relatively moderate effort to be there. It was at this point that I noticed how cold it was. Although the natural wind didn’t appear to be too strong, at well over forty kilometres per hour in the opening miles you are generating your own. Not to mention the fact that you are dressed in a skimpy lycra outfit which is soaked through. I could have sworn that the Katabatic winds that ravage the Antarctic landscape were holidaying in Busselton. Now starting to freeze I noticed the gap between myself and the group was no longer closing but I felt unable to produce the power required to make the final junction.
It was as though everything was happening at once, the group started moving away at walking pace (which is more concerning that it sounds!) and I became increasingly unable to focus on what I was doing. Within moments they had all but gone. At this moment David Mainwaring who had come from forty-five seconds behind following the swim came past me. Still thinking that everything should be fine I figured this was a great opportunity. Having ridden together in Huskisson and Batemans Bay we would be a good pair. Sadly I was completely unable to respond in any manner when he came by which both shocked me and sent me into a mild panic. The race was set up so tantalising well by my swim and now it was disappearing in an instant. The cold continued to creep in and I took a moment to down a gel in order to help regain composure. It would be the last time I took something to eat, my hands were so numb I had to slow significantly to get a hold of it with my numb fingers. It provided no respite and I grew colder and colder as I watched my average speed and power plummet.
Just eleven kilometres in and I knew I was done, I just wanted someone to give me a jacket and a warm drink to ride back to town in. The reality was that this race is held on roads that branch out into the middle of nowhere from the most geographically isolated Ironman event in the world. There was nothing. I got so cold that I couldn’t release the aero bars and had to glide to a stop at the turnaround in order to physically turn the bike around and readjust my hand grip. Unable to control my shaking I rode back into town miserable and absolutely frozen. I never tried to get back into aero position. With every minute and competitor that flew passed I got further confirmation that the race was long gone. The leaders were already about 12 minutes ahead of me as I arrived in Busselton. Pulling up at the barriers, dismounting and exiting the course was the lowest moment of my racing career. The painful irony was that the sun was now high enough in the sky to provide some warmth. I was still cold and unable to produce my best but I must have been regaining control over myself as I no longer felt like crying.
Thoughts: I persisted in similar (albeit much milder) conditions in Challenge Melbourne to finish the bike leg twenty minutes in arrears. I ran reasonably at that race, all things considered, but it was still sub-par and it didn’t improve my overall position. Pushing through the cold there aggravated a long running hamstring issue in a manner that I’m still paying for. It also took a huge amount of energy out of my body just three weeks prior to another race. But, I finished. The problem is that finishing is no longer enough, it isn’t the goal or a challenge. If it was done without intensity it would just be a long training day. In Busselton I’d had a great swim, I’d proved I’m moving in the right direction with that aspect of the sport and set the day up well. All the same, the conditions really did end my race. With a niggling hip problem taking to the run course over twenty minutes down didn’t make sense. Everyone out there was cold, there is no doubt. Many people didn’t take any nutrition early on the bike because of hands too cold to use but I slid further becoming all but non functional. I know it is not a matter of being tough, my body just doesn’t cope with it. The resolution? I’ll be targeting the warmer climates for a while. If the cold is my kryptonite, it stands to reason that the heat shouldn’t be an issue. I look forward to testing this. I feel like I’ve been on a never ending merry-go-round of building up, tapering and racing this year although I’d like to have one more crack before the winter sets. So whilst I’m scanning the race calendar I’ll be working to rehabilitate my hip during a (hopefully) short layoff.
This professional racing business is tough. I never expected it to be easy and it hasn’t disappointed.