Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ironman New Zealand 2011 - Race Report

I am an Ironman.

I did it.

Far out.

Part of me always knew I could do it. Otherwise why would I have entered in the first place? I had done the training and Coach Dave was confident that I was prepared. I was ready to go play in the ironman sandpit.

The day started at 4.00am. The great thing about the previous day's meltdown was that all the tension that had obviously been building up inside me had finally been released.  I had gone to bed, emotionally exhausted, at 7.30pm and had slept through virtually uninterrupted until the alarm clock went off.

I therefore woke up feeling pretty fresh. There were still nerves, but they were focused nerves - game face was on and I was mentally ready for the day. Porridge for breakfast, neck taped up to protect the wetsuit chafing and we were ready to head down to the transition area just before 5.00am.

It was bucketing down outside. The forecast was for rain, light winds and a temperature reaching 20 degrees (C). So far the forecast was spot on. It had been raining all night and didn't look like it was going to stop anytime soon. So I was going to get wet - well that was going to happen in the swim anyway! The biggest problem would be the cold but I figured I had survived a half ironman in colder temperatures and managed fine, so should be able to cope with whatever Taupo decided to throw at us.

We got to the tent for body marking and also dropped off my special needs bags. These bags are made available to you half way through the bike and run legs and you can use them to put in any emergency stuff you might need while on the course (as you can't pick up anything from supporters on the sidelines). In the run bag was my rain jacket, a spare pair of socks, compeed blister plasters and some spare food. The bike bag had a short sleeved polypropylene top, plasters, spare food and an extra bike tube and CO2 canister. I had spare gear on the bike to cope with two punctures but was feeling particularly paranoid about the race tyres as I had already had two punctures on the previous three times I had taken them out training!

It was still quite early and so there weren't many people around waiting for their body marking, which was great. I got that done, dropped off the special needs bags and then headed over to the transition area where the bikes were all set up. First of all I had one of the Avanti mechanics pump up the tyres (110 psi) - the service was available so may as well make the most of it! Then I put the bento box and food on, loaded the water into the aero bottle and put the bottle of electrolyte drink in the bottle cage and then set the helmet so that it covered the bento box, hopefully to minimize the rain getting into all my food (i.e making my Em's power cookie and Powerbar gel blasts soggy!).

I then had a quiet chuckle over all the bikes set up in transition with plastic bags over them. They had been set up like that the previous day and the bag would have to come off before the race started. Hello, it's raining people, your bikes are going to get soaked while you're swimming and, last time I looked, they weren't made of sugar. A plastic bag on the bike overnight isn't going to make any difference to it! I guess they had some logic for it but it seemed pretty pointless.

It was about 5.30am by this stage and the rain was still coming down. There was nothing left to do then but head back to the tent at the finish line and keep warm and dryish for the next 45 mins or so. By that stage people were pouring in for their body marking and there was a hive of activity and nerves as everyone stayed under the canvas for as long as possible.

I was still feeling good and at about 6.10am decided to start putting the wetsuit on. That done we walked down the hill to the swim start area, pausing enroute at the transition area so I could do a final check of the bike.

We got to the swim start at about 6.30am and by 6.40am I was ready to get into the water. A quick goodbye to Pete and I joined the throng of fellow competitors passing over the timing mat to "check in" before entering the water, just as the gun went off for the elite start.

The water temperature was great. Really comfortable compared to the south island temperatures I had been training in. It was, however, still dark and raining. So much for sighting off the hills - even though it was getting lighter, the rain was completely obscuring not only the hills but also the buoys marking out the course. The only thing we could see in front of us were the green start buoys and so the generally agreed approach became "follow the group in front"! As it turned out, once we got going, for the first half of the leg you could see one buoy ahead but not much more.
The umbrellas say it all

Amongst the crowds Jacky managed to find me in the water and we managed a floating hug (those wetsuits definitely provide good buoyancy!) and a reminder to each other to "just keep swimming". She then decided to move up to a space she had spotted while I settled in not far behind.

The swim was a rectangular out and back course in a clockwise direction. My original plan was to start wide on the left hand side and gradually swim towards the right so as to stay out of the throng but, with the conditions, I changed the plan and decided to start on the inside so I could more easily see the buoys, and towards the back, to keep out of the masses.

In my mind I had three strategies for the swim:
1. Start slow
2. Chunk it down and focus on ticking off one buoy at a time
3. Channel Nemo "Just keep swimming..."

And it worked.

The cannon went off and suddenly we were away. I started out slow and looked only for the first buoy. We got to that one and then ticked off another, then another, then another. All the way I had people swimming with me and that really helped also. I never got that feeling of being left behind and of not making any progress, which had been my mental battle. Before long I could see the turn buoy at the far end and I was going around it and up to the second turn buoy for the return leg.

It was an amazing feeling coming out of the water, still with people around me and, apparently, lots of people behind! I had nailed the swim and felt fantastic. As I ran under the timing gate I saw Pete going nuts and high-fived him with a big grin.

A further 10m on I suddenly heard "TONI HODGE - YOU ARE A LEGEND!". It was Coach Dave and I think he was almost as excited as I was to have done it. My hands were still stuck in my wetsuit sleeves but I turned and gave him a big thumbs up through the neoprene as I went past.

Woohoo - stoked to have nailed the swim!
It was then a 400m run/walk along the road and up the hill to the transition area. When I reached transition I heard my name called and one of the volunteers was holding out my transition bag ready for me. Very cool - our numbers were on the bags but the volunteers had gone through and written our first names on the bags as well - a great touch.

Into the changing tent and immediately one of the volunteers came over to give me a hand. My wetsuit was pulled off, feet dried, number belt on, socks and bike shoes put on and I was almost ready to go. Sunglasses were next and I decided to take another minute to change the lenses. It was still pouring with rain and with no indication of a let up I figured it would be better to have the yellow lenses in rather than the dark tinted ones. I have Oakley Jawbones and they are a breeze to change over. A bite out of an Em's Power Cookie and I was good to go.

I ran out to the bike, put my helmet on and then jogged out to the bike start line and onto the bike.

I was feeling really good and this would be my favourite leg. My strategies for this leg would be:
1. Keep heart rate low (average 135)
2. Keep cadence high (85-95 rpm)
3. Stay upright.

(I added the last one due to the conditions - it was clearly going to be a case of surviving the bike rather going all out and getting a great time.)

The rain, however, had other ideas. It was raining so hard that I couldn't read the display on the bike computer. I therefore ended up going by "feel" and didn't focus too much on the stats. The other major problem was my sunglasses. Despite the lenses being vented there was so much rain they kept fogging up and the amount of water on the lenses impacted on visibility. Within the first 5km I stopped and took them off, thinking it had to be easier to see without them. However when I got going again I instead had rain hitting my unprotected eyeballs - an equally uncomfortable situation.

I ended up putting the sunglasses back on and getting used to having limited visibility throughout the bike leg. It was the lessor of two evils.

The bike leg is an out and back undulating to flat course north to Reporoa, completed twice. Before I started on the ironman journey I used to love biking, as long as it didn't involve climbing. Now the hills presented no problems and I even passed people while climbing... Amazing! I also passed people throughout the leg, which was great fun.

(How cool is it to go past a guy with a disc wheel?!!!)

Afterwards we checked my bike computer stats and I had an average heart rate of 143 which was a bit higher than Coach Dave had wanted - ah well, I always knew I'd have problems pegging it back on that leg, and it probably wasn't too bad given I was going by feel.

The first lap of the bike went really well, on schedule, and feeling great. It was still bucketing down but not cold so I headed out on the second lap without picking up my special needs bag. As expected the wind made its presence felt on the second lap, but it didn't cause too many problems, especially when compared to the persistent rain that was making my cookie and gummy gels soggy!

The aid stations on the bike were really well managed. Volunteers would stand holding out a range of supplies - water bottles, electrolyte bottles, bananas and gels were all on offer and all you had to do was slow down slightly and call out what you wanted. The appropriate person would then get ready to run alongside if necessary to hand you what you wanted. The bananas proved to be a welcome change from gels and I got quite adept at peeling a banana with my teeth and grabbing the bulk of the fruit while chucking away the skin before the end of the "drop zone" (the allocated area on either side of the aid station where you were allowed to discard any rubbish). I also got thanked by the volunteers a couple of times for my clear calling, so it was good to know I was doing something right!
Stay upright...stay upright

The second lap was slower than the first lap, probably due to a few factors:
1. The wind.
2. My back started aching so there was a bit of coasting so I could stretch it out.
3. The need to pee! Apparently the way to do this is to stand up on your pedals and just go. Well I tried that and it is way more difficult than it sounds! After several attempts, and several instances of coasting to a virtual standstill without having performed I ended up stopping the bike and crouching in some long grass.
4. One knee started playing up. I started getting a twinge behind one knee so inevitably lost a bit of power on the final 45km back into Taupo. I was worried that it would impact my run but thankfully the pain stopped when I got off the bike. It was obviously a bike-specific problem and likely due to the frequency of the hills that I hadn't mimicked in training.

It was a reasonably conservative arrival back into town and T2. The roads were treacherously wet and there were some tight turns in the final kilometre, and I was determined that I wouldn't give the crowds a sliding spectacle! I got in safely and handed the bike over to the waiting volunteers who took it away and racked it for me.

Again the volunteers holding our transition bags out were dancing around and cheering us on and I felt like a rock star coming into a big (wet) party. And the big wet was right. In the transition tent the ground was sodden and drying my feet to put on my running shoes became a futile exercise. As soon as I stood up my feet would sink into an inch of water and by the time I left transition my feet were soaked. Yippee.

During the bike I had worn just my Tri shorts and top and, thankfully, didn't feel cold at all. Once I got into transition, though, I figured it would probably get cold once it got dark and so I decided to throw on a long sleeved polypropylene top for the run. My other job in transition was to sort out a severe case of chafing that had occurred on my leg. Just below my Tri shorts my leg had rubbed on something on the bike stem and, in the wet, had chafed quite badly. There were plenty of medical personnel wandering around transition and one of them was quickly on the job, putting a towel on it to dry the area and then putting on a burn dressing to keep it covered.

While I was getting sorted the medic told me I had over 8 hours to do the run, which just required a pace of 5km/hr. No problem, I thought, I can walk that if I need to.

And so I set out on the run leg.

My plan for this was simple:
1. Walk each aid station.
2. Finish (before midnight).

The run is a 2 lap course out of town along the waterfront so, essentially 4 x 10km segments.

The first lap went pretty much to plan. There were a couple of reasonable hills to get up and so I did walk up a portion of those, but that didn't overly concern me. I knew I had time and the only time pressure I was interested in by that stage was finishing before midnight.

During the run I started to feel like a rock star. The IMNZ organizers had provided special race bibs for the Christchurch athletes following the earthquake. The bibs were black and red striped (Canterbury colours) and had on them "Christchurch is my home". On the run, then, people could easily see where I was from and so I heard massive amounts of encouragement for my name and for Christchurch, which provided a real boost.

2nd lap and it's really starting to hurt.
As I came into town for the end of the first lap things started to really hurt and I was running out of gas. As I headed out on my second lap I saw Pete with the camera and managed to keep running but it was becoming a real struggle.

At about the 23km mark I started walking. Over the next 15km I had a few attempts a running again but just didn't have the energy and/or strong enough desire to do it. I knew I had time to finish and so I focused on maintaining forward progress and eating and drinking something at every aid station. I alternated between water, coke and Horleys to drink and biscuits and chips to eat as a way of trying to maintain some variety.

It started getting dark and the only constant of the day remained constant...the rain.  About halfway out on the second lap, then, the call was made by the medical officials that we all had to wear plastic rain ponchos.  It was for our own safety although, inevitably, most of us weren't happy about it!  I managed to get through one aid station without putting one on, convincing the volunteer that I was warm enough with my polypro top.  It was true (and virtually no one else was wearing polypros), and he believed me, albeit reluctantly.  I was unable to convince the girl at the next aid station, though, and she very kindly insisted that I had to not only put my head through it but my arms through the sleeves as well.  Ah well, it was worth a try!  

On the final leg back into town my thoughts started turning towards the finish line.  It seemed that every muscle and joint in my body was hurting at this time and even the soles of my feet were aching with every step I took.  It was agony, but I knew that I couldn't walk down the finish chute.  I had to be running.  Giving myself a bit of a pep talk, then, I started the ironman shuffle with about 6km to go.

After a kilometre I had reached the second to last aid station and I took a gel there and a gulp of water and kept on my steady, slow run progress.  By this stage everyone around me was also walking and so I started to go past a few people.  At the last aid station I took another gel and was starting to come to the conclusion that it was actually slightly less painful on my feet to be running/shuffling than walking and, with 2.5km to go I knew I could run the rest of the way.

Along the waterfront I went and kids were starting to get excited so I got the odd high five out of them as I went past.  At the end of the waterfront you do a right hand turn and run up Tongariro St, away from the lake.  On that corner one of the local radio stations had set up a stage and they were having a huge party there encouraging the athletes along.  It was great to run/shuffle past them and they got a high five as well as I went past.

Up Tongariro St and there was less than a kilometre to go.  Halfway up I saw Pete going nuts behind the barricades.  I high fived him as I went past and about 10m further up Coach Dave was there and he got high fived too, as did heaps of spectators that were all cheering me along for the last stretch up the road.  It was then a left hand turn off the road and onto the reserve and all I could think about was "don't slip on the grass - it's really wet, there might not be a lot of grip."  Thankfully my feet stayed firm and I completed the left hand turn safely.

All of a sudden the finish chute was in front of me and I was on the carpet.  Lights were everywhere and the noise of the crowds and music playing were incredible.  In that instant all of the pain I had been feeling completely disappeared and I started running down the finish chute as fresh as a daisy.  I even managed a bit of a leap for joy.  As I got to the last few metres I high fived the crowds on the right hand side of the finish chute, completely forgetting that Pete (and Coach Dave) were in the ironmates stand on the opposite side - will never live that one down!).

Before I knew it I was running through the finish tape to the sounds of Mike Reilly calling ...


SOO happy...and tired!
Coach Dave, St Pete and me

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