Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What a Difference a Week Makes

A lot can happen in a week.

This time last week my season was over and I was into my second week of getting St Pete's and my life back to some sense of normality.  We were doing fun weekend stuff, I had caught up on sleep and we were enjoying our evenings after work not having to schedule everything around training.  I had taken the option of doing Ironman Australia (Port Macquarie) off the table and was satisfied with that decision.  I had had a good season, finished off IMNZ (albeit a 70.3) in good shape and was starting to think about IMNZ 2013.

And then on Friday afternoon the email from IMNZ arrived in my inbox, setting out the promised options for those of us wanting to do a replacement ironman event.  As I cast my eyes down the list I saw the expected IM Australia but then also saw a second Australian option.

Ironman Cairns.

Within the previous couple of days, WTC had announced it had bought the events management company that ran the Challenge Cairns event and the resulting fallout of that would mean that Challenge Cairns would become Ironman Cairns in 2012. And I could do that event for much less than I was expecting the discounted prices to be.

I didn't think too much more about it other than to confirm to St Pete that the price of entry did mean I was tempted, but by the end of the day St Pete was suggesting that I give IM Cairns serious consideration.

So, like a good Irongirl, I did!

Over the weekend we did a review of the likely costs involved and then had a long Skype conversation with Coach Dave to make sure that, after a two week complete break, he was confident I had time to pick things up and have a decent crack at it. We agreed that there was no point pressuring myself to get up for Port Mac, however the extra month available for Cairns made it a definite starter.

One casualty out of the decision was the New York marathon. We were confirmed in a New Zealand group to head over in November to do this iconic event. However we couldn't afford to do both. In the end it we decided we had been to New York before and the marathon would always be there to do in the future. In contrast, Cairns was a new destination for us and this was a one-time opportunity for me to finish a not quite perfect season on a high note (or on a much better note than it currently was!).

It will also give me a third IM "finish" which could be valuable if I ever get to the stage of securing a Kona spot via the "12 finishes" pathway!

So, within the space of a week, this Ironman junkie has her name down for Ironman Cairns and training is back on...74 days to go ... excited!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Ironman New Zealand 2012 - Dealing with Disappointment

Ironman is always teaching you something new.

No matter how well you think you have this event sorted, something will come along and challenge you like you've never experienced before.

This year that challenge came in the form of the weather. The approaching storm left the organisers with no choice but to cancel the race, only 12 hours before our alarm clocks were set to wake us for our epic day. That they were able to put on a half distance the next day was phenomenal, and all kudos to the New Zealand crew and the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), owners of the Ironman event, for making it happen.

In the 36 hours leading up to our eventual start time, then, I remained positive and focused on preparing to have a good race, no matter what the distance. My main thought and sympathies were for the first timers who had had their maiden ironman journey taken away from them. From a personal perspective, I was in a fortunate position and, if anything, more relaxed going into the revised distance.  A 70.3 was almost "just" a training day for me.  I had a few of those under my belt, including one in Wanaka just 6 weeks ago, so I could go into this with more confidence and push things a bit more.

What I wasn't expecting, though, was to feel so down about things afterwards. During the run I hit a couple of low spots where it seemed my heart just wasn't in it and that undoubtedly caused me to walk more than I wanted or planned. Then once I had finished and in the days afterwards I would occasionally get caught unawares and find myself in tears, for no obvious reason, struggling to embrace the positives. 

I had trained hard all year - we had overcome so many obstacles to get me to the start line and here was this freak of nature event that would prevent me from finishing our own annus horribilus on a high note. It may sound trite, but it really seemed like I was going through a grieving process for the ironman I had "lost".  My head was saying all the right things, and my head had been fully in control prior to and during virtually all of the race, but afterwards my heart took over and I did feel the loss.

So how did I deal with the disappointment?

I ended up doing a couple of things.

One of those was a "brain dump" to Coach Dave.  One of the great things about a coach is their ability to maintain an external, big picture, perspective on things when you're incapable of thinking at all rationally.  And this became a really valuable exercise.  I put down all the positives and all the challenges in an email to him trying to make sense of it all.  And this is what I came up with:

  • I’ve done an Ironman before. This year wasn’t about proving my ability to do the distance. I am an ironman and that will never change.
  • For me, training for ironman is a lifestyle, a life-long journey.  This wasn't a one-time, tick it off your bucket list, event.  I love the sport and plan on doing it for many years to come.
  • Based on the previous statement, there will be more ironman finishes in the future.  Long term this will be just a blip and in 5 years time we'll look back on this as "the year of the weather bomb" and just one of those things that happens.
  • Despite doing a shorter distance, my age group performance has improved by about 20% on last year.
Challenges I Need to Deal With (Why I'm Struggling to Stay Positive):
  • My training/tapering/lifestyle had been focused around completing the IM distance. This didn’t happen and so the year seems somehow incomplete.
  • The focus on training had been all around the season finishing (albeit for a short time!) in March and April providing an opportunity to have a break, give something back to St Pete, enjoy life and Sydney for a bit before getting back into it and looking towards next year. Even though I had a hard race and feel like I need a break, I don’t really feel it’s right, because I haven’t yet done the “A” race I was aiming for.
  • After crossing the finish line of an ironman, you walk around with a real sense of satisfaction, knowing you achieved your goals. This time around I don’t have that same sense of satisfaction (despite the positives above).
What do I need to do about it?
  • Get over it! Seriously, though, I know it's just a matter of time. I’m feeling flat, exhausted (and occasionally emotional) now, but that will pass, especially as I start to look towards next year.
  • Ironman Port Macquarie? There may be an opportunity to do an ironman event at a discounted rate and Port Macquarie could be an option, in May.  It means extending the training year for another 8 weeks. It will give me my “A” race for the season. But, based on the positives above, what have I got to prove? Without even considering the likely cost of adding an unplanned (major) event to the calendar, do I actually “need” to do it to feel better about things?
By getting out the positives and negatives I was able to clarify my thoughts but, most importantly, I gave myself permission to be down for a couple of days.  I was physically and emotionally exhausted and I needed to go through that process.  Plus I knew it was a temporary state of mind, which would only be made worse if I tried to fight or suppress it.

And I got the feedback I needed from Coach Dave - love your work, D :)

I also took a huge weight off my mind by making the decision not to do Port Macquarie Ironman.  Pete had already proved his position as best support crew in the world, bar none, by not hesitating in saying that if I wanted to do Port Mac then he would make sure it happened.  (How many spouses would do that?!!!!  He so deserves my IM medal!)  But March was my end of season, and I needed to give myself (and St Pete) a break from training.  Adding another 8 weeks to the year, while possible, wasn't going to achieve anything long term in the scheme of things and Pete deserved to have me back for a few weeks before we started looking towards next season.

The second thing I did was review my results for the two half IM distances I had done this season and, by doing so, identified concrete outcomes that confirmed the year's efforts hadn't been wasted.  Online calculators were found and spreadsheets were created (yes, typical Type A personality/Ironman behaviour!) which gave me back a sense of control and understanding of the season and my performance.

And sure enough, by the middle of the week, I found myself looking to next year.

My mind had started mulling over what had gone well (in terms of individual disciplines/splits), what hadn't met my expectations, and possible focus points leading to Ironman New Zealand 2013. That analysis is for the next blog, but it is a sure sign that I have moved on and have well and truly left any disappointment behind.


Ironman New Zealand 2012 - A Shorter Day

Sunday morning, 4 March 2012, 24 hours after I was supposed to have been starting Ironman #2 and I was on the shores of Lake Taupo with 1500 fellow athletes, contemplating a shortened day ahead.

We had woken at 4.00am to go through the normal breakfast and body glide routine.  Eat some toast and banana, apply body glide to all the bits that might even think about chafing during the day and think happy, focused thoughts.

The weather was still a bit iffy - the wind was blowing enough to cast doubts in my mind as to whether we would get to swim, and yesterday's storm had left a chill in the air.  However there was no point thinking or worrying about it - we needed to get down to the start area and get body marked and then rack the bike for a second time.  After I racked the bike I also had to find my transition bags and re-check those.  I needed to make sure everything in there was still needed given the shortened distance and do minor changes such as change the yellow lenses out of the sunglasses and put the dark lenses back in.

All sorted and it was back to the marquee to chill out for half an hour or so.

And chill out I did.  Literally.

The temperature outside was about 5 degrees Celsius and my long pants and hoodie were struggling to keep me anywhere near warm enough.

Waiting, waiting, trying to stay warm...
By 7.00am (an hour before race start) I had had enough of sitting around playing ice block and so we headed down to the foreshore and found mum and dad.  They had driven up from Christchurch to cheer me on and this was to be their first ironman experience.  I was really pleased to have them share this with us and hoped they would enjoy it as much as we had promised!

An added bonus was the fact that they had travelled up in their camper van.  The Taupo District Council is very accommodating to self-contained campers and provides a parking area right by the lakefront where you can park up for a maximum of two nights.  No pre-booking, you just take your chances, but there were parks for about 20 vans and it was right between the swim start and the run/bike action.  They therefore had a perfect spot to base themselves for the day.

We headed down to the start area and it was looking like it was going to be a great day.  I was ready to go, in fact I was wishing we could just get on with it!  At that point I should have already finished ironman for the year and hobbled my aching muscles to the nearest cafe for a decent celebratory breakfast.

Anyway, the day was just beginning and so I said my farewells to mum, dad and St Pete and joined everyone through the swim chute down to the start line to get acclimatised to the water temperature.  The lake was a little chilly to start with, but warmer than Shelly Beach had been a few weeks ago when I did the Cole Classic (sans wetsuit!).

Finally, we were swimming.  The water was a little bit lumpy from yesterday's storm, and not quite as clear as it normally is (again, remnants of the storm). There was still a bit of wind but it really wasn't too bad. We headed out and, as always, it took me a while to get into a rhythm. However I was a pretty happy camper - not worried about the distance or anything other than getting to the first turn buoy. We got there and did the turn which leads you about 70m away from the shore before you turn again and head back to the starting end of the course. I did my first ever "swim" around the buoy, rather than "breaststroke" around it so was very pleased with myself there, and "swam" around the second buoy and headed home.

The swim seemed to be going OK. I was happy, didn't get lost, didn't seem to get too far off course and was doing calculations in my head about the time I wanted to see on the clock on the beach. The pros had started 15min ahead of us and I was aiming for a 45min swim time. So I really wanted to see 1 hour or less showing on the clock when I got out of the water.

When I hit the beach and looked it up, the clock was showing 1:05. Damn! That meant a 50min swim rather than 45min. What happened there? Bit disappointed with that, but nothing I could do about it now, onto the bike. I ran up the chute, overtaking about four people in the first 20m out of the water (they were all walking/staggering out!) to start the 400m jog up to transition. As I did so I also started pulling my wetsuit down. I've got a fab new Garmin 910XT trainer on my wrist and it takes a bit of care to get the wetsuit sleeves off so I decided to stop and walk a couple of metres while I concentrated on getting the sleeve off properly.

Next thing I hear "you're not supposed to be walking!" Jeez, talk about sprung! Look up and there's Mel S and her partner Pete, standing alongside the walkway, telling me off. OK, sleeve off, lesson learnt and I start jogging along the green carpet again and up the hill to transition.

Into the transition tent and the volunteers, as always, were amazing. Wetsuit stripped off, bag emptied out, shoes and socks on, vest and arm warmers on, number on, sunglasses on and I'm ready to go. Run out, helmet on, pick up bike and before I know it I'm off riding.

The bike is my favourite leg and this was no exception. I relished the opportunity to push a bit harder than I would have done with full IM distance and spent the 90 minutes powering out to Reporoa with a bit of a tail wind and plenty of people around to target and pass.

At Reporoa we turn around and head back into town and it was set to be a slightly longer journey - uphill overall and a noticeable headwind made its presence known. Not to worry, I settled in and had plenty of people around to play cat and mouse with.

I had a good routine with the aid stations as well, picking up a banana at all but one and taking in a gel every 15km. The one aid station I missed picking up a banana from was at the bottom of a hill and I think I might have been going slightly too fast for me to do a successful pickup ... who's bright idea was it to put an aid station at the bottom of a hill anyway? Such a waste of perfectly good free speed!!!!

The last 10km of the IMNZ bike course is always my favourite - downhill - and today was no exception. Even better than last year, it was dry as well, so there was no holding back as we came back into Taupo. So much so that about 5km out my contact lens appeared to get blown out. I thought I felt it dislodge and had a couple of attempts at pushing it back into place but wasn't about to sacrifice any speed in this final section so pushed on with 3/4 vision and the hope that I could resolve it in transition.

Into transition and again loved the work of the volunteers. I sat down and had my bike shoes and socks taken off for me and new socks put on and running shoes put on as well. That left me free to take off my helmet, vest and arm warmers and put on my running cap and rearrange my race number to my front.

And just like that I was ready to head out on the final leg. Just before I left the tent, though, I spotted a medic and so took the opportunity to ask her to check my eye for a stray lens. No conclusive answer on that - after a bit of pushing my eyeball around she couldn't tell if it was in or out. Never mind, if I have to, I'll run without it.

Are we there yet?
So with good vision in one eye and average vision in the other eye I started running. As usual the first 5km was tough but I expected that and so knew I just had to get through it. The course had been changed to a 2 lapper, so around 5.5km each way, out and back.

The plan was to only walk the aid stations and I sort of achieved that. OK, I didn't totally achieve that... But I did finish up with a 2:31 half marathon time which isn't too bad for me. During the run I had some great company - Jacky (Ironjack) was out there yelling me on and Mel S also lounged in a deck chair alongside the run course (and she gave me a hard time for walking for 10m to transition, jeez!).

Loudest of all were St Pete and Mum and Dad, who had also scattered themselves along the course with the inflated bananas, cowbell and pullout signs. They certainly had a busy time once I started running and, given it's my least favourite leg, it was the best time to have some loud and raucous company!

One of the really cool things about the out and back course is that you had plenty of company in the form of other runners and I guess it's a reflection of my improvement that even on my last lap there were still people around - I wasn't running on my own. And heading back on my last lap I couldn't help but look across at the people still heading out, usually with two arm bands on (signifying that they were on their last lap as well), but occasionally I'd see someone with only one arm band on, which gave me a great confidence boost.

Six hours and 44 minutes after setting out that morning I headed down the finish chute, absolutely shattered but also really happy to be getting to the end.

One of the only times, I'm sure, that I'll finish Ironman in the daylight!!!!!!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Ironman New Zealand 2012 - The Prologue

Saturday morning, 8.00am, 1 hour after the start time of Ironman NZ 2012, and I'm lying in bed reading a magazine on the iPad, listening to the wind howling around the apartment on the shores of Lake Taupo.

This year's Ironman was a character builder second to none.  Anyone who thought they had it all sorted, had trained well and were fully prepared to have the race of their lives, had another think coming.
Big time.

Because Mother Nature, bless her cotton socks, had sucked all that preparation, all that training and all that focus, out of 1600 athletes, 2000 volunteers and Ironman NZ staff, and spat it back at us like a woman with a really bad dose of PMT. That bad temper came in the form of a weather bomb that tracked across New South Wales, the Tasman Sea and the middle of the North Island - right at the time we were meant to be racing our Ironman triathlon.

But I guess I should start at the beginning.  

Well maybe I shouldn't - the beginning is pretty staid in comparison with the days that followed our arrival in Taupo.  Fly to Auckland (get an upgrade, that was pretty exciting), pick up a rental car, drive to Taupo, check into our apartment and proceed to unpack, relax and take in the ironman atmosphere that takes over the town each year. Get the wetsuit dipped to prevent the spread of Didymo, spend squillions on Ironman merchandise and every other conceivable thing that might be required on race day. Eat white carbs, drink electrolytes, rest and generally think strong and focused.

The weather was pretty average when we arrived Tuesday night and hadn't really improved on Wednesday.  It was noticeably colder than last year but the lake was looking its best flat self.  The long range forecast hadn't been looking flash but there was still plenty of time for that to change and, hey, it couldn't be any worse than last year, could it, when we spent the entire day getting soaked in the rain?

Big mistake!

On Thursday I even had time for a social catch up with Ironjack, who had come down to Taupo for the day and it was a perfect chance for a girls' lunch. So we were in pretty good spirits as St Pete and I headed to the carbo party on Thursday night and the race briefing that followed.

During the race briefing the first signs of possible trouble appeared. The long range forecast for Saturday was outlined and at that stage we were warned that it may be too windy to go ahead with the swim.  In that case there was a contingency whereby the event would become a bike/run and the protocols for decision making and alternatives were outlined.

As an afterthought the comment was made that, of course, if there is no bike leg then there is no event.  However it was such a throwaway remark I don't think anyone in the room considered it more than a remote possibility.  Instead, I walked away thinking that we stood a good chance of not being able to do the swim.

The weather was of sufficient concern, however, that there was an additional compulsory athlete briefing scheduled for Friday night so that an update could be provided on the weather.

Friday, then, went pretty much as planned, except I started thinking about contingencies for cold weather on the bike and run. I had brought three polypro tops with us to distribute amongst the bike, run and special needs bags so had warmth almost covered.  However we decided I should also grab a wind vest for the bike and maybe some arm warmers wouldn't go amiss either.  Thank goodness for the ironman sports expo - the retailers at the expo were doing a roaring trade in vests that morning!

By the time I went to check in the transition bags and rack the bike I felt as prepared as possible for all contingencies.

At 4pm on Friday afternoon we all trooped back in for the additional briefing and it was that point we received the news no one wanted to hear.  The predicted weather bomb coming across from Australia was expected to track across the central plateau, an alpine area just south of Lake Taupo.  The local Civil Defence crew were preparing for the worst and Ironman NZ Event Director, Jane Patterson, had no choice but to cancel racing on Saturday due to the predicted strength of the winds.

In her next breath, though, Jane gave us some welcome news.  

Although we couldn't race on Saturday they were doing everything they could to put on a half distance (70.3) race on Sunday.  

The applause that broke out at that announcement said it all.  

Everyone immediately understood, and appreciated, the mammoth undertaking that was going to be required to shift the event by one day.  Road closures, resources, coordinating volunteers - the number of favours being called in to achieve this couldn't be underestimated.

Although disappointed, I immediately felt even more gutted for the first timers.  There were over 550 athletes in Taupo ready to do their first ironman and the weather was stripping that opportunity away from them.  I, at least, had nothing to prove as I had already done the distance and knew I would be back for more. 

Our immediate attention, then, turned to logistics over the next 24 hours.  1500 athletes had to return to transition and retrieve bikes and helmets then return to their accommodation and batten down the hatches to await the approaching storm.  Meanwhile the ironman team were storing our transition bags and taking down flags, barriers and anything else likely to get blown away. They would be back onsite at 2.00am Sunday morning to put the course back together again.

It was nothing short of a phenomenal effort by them all.

At 3.45am on Saturday morning the wind started (and woke us up).  It absolutely howled and kept me awake the rest of the morning and it was absolutely clear that Civil Defence and Ironman New Zealand had made the right call in cancelling the race.  There wasn't too much rain, but the wind was such that it would have been really unsafe to have been out on the bikes. By mid-morning you could surf on the lake and the birds were having a great time.

That afternoon we were back at yet another briefing - hoping like anything that the 70.3 race was still on.  And it was!  Changes to the course were outlined, contingencies for the cold and wet explained and assurances given that everything was being done to give us an "ironman experience" the next morning.  There was still a risk that the swim wouldn't go ahead (if the winds were still too strong) and in that case it would become a bike/run event - something everyone realised was a possibility but hoped wouldn't become necessary.

That night I had a good chat to Coach Dave about the situation.  He was satisfied that I was as prepared as I could be and had covered all the contingencies.  All that remained was to have a technically good race:  be happy on the swim, go a bit harder on the bike than I originally planned and then try and achieve a steady run. 

Whatever greeted us the next morning, I was ready for it.