Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ironman Cairns - Race Report

What a friggin' day.

But I finished Ironman Cairns, officially Ironman #3, and am therefore a very content camper.

The race plan, however, got shredded up and thrown in the sea when I got out of the water and saw my time.  2 hrs 17 mins !!!!!!!  OK, there is more to that story, which I will come back to.
The day started out fine - the weather was a real pearler.  Clear skies, no wind and it promised to be hot - bugger!  After several days of rain, Cairns had turned it on big time.

We had the usual pre-race routine.  Alarm went off at 4.00am and I was up feeling fresh and ready to go.  A light breakfast and then it was down to T1 to check on the bike and pump up the tyres.  Then wetsuit on and off to the start area where the ironman athletes were corralled before being allowed into the water.

The swim started really well, I was happy and calm and had my breathing sorted out nicely, and then about 300m in got my goggles kicked off my face.  No problem, I emptied them out and carried on, but I would end up being plagued be continual leakages all the way round the course, inevitably slowing me up as I periodically stopped to empty them out and try to find a decent seal.

In hindsight I think I made a major blunder by putting sunscreen lotion on my face before the start. I'm pretty sure that's what caused my goggles to leak.


I checked my time at the end of the first lap, though, and it was 51mins.  Considering the problem with the goggles, I was OK with that and on track for a swim time of 1hr 40min. 
I head out on the second lap then and that's where the fun started.  At about that time the tide started to go out.  I hadn't realised it at the time but I did notice the flotsam that I was starting to swim through heading out on the second loop.  Luckily it consisted of tree branches and not any of the local wildlife!   And so the 860m outward leg was OK but I kept being pushed off course and then the 830m back we were swimming against the tide.  It seemed to take forever to get back into shore and I was still getting pushed off course by the current as well.

I got out of the water, had swollen sore eyes from all the salt water, was feeling mildly sick as well from the salt water and then looked at my watch.

2 hrs 17 min.

What?  OK, so I wasn't dreaming that it was taking forever to get back in but 51 minutes PLUS an extra 35mins to get around that second lap and only 3mins inside the cutoff!  It would be fair to say I was mildly annoyed with myself/ironman/everything.  To add insult to injury the Garmin recorded a swim of 4.3km - 500m further than the course should have been.  I know I kept ending up being wide on the course but I can't imagine I swam that much extra distance to stay on track.

However one of the great secrets to success in ironman is that you must have the ability to roll with the punches.  Don't let adversity get to you, adapt to the situation and you'll make it to the end.  And so I did.  And at that point I threw away the race plan and it simply became a case of getting to the finish.

With the swim behind me I didn't consider the idea of trying to make up time on the bike but, even so, did try and do a solid effort.  However it was hard.  My neck, shoulders and arms were stuffed from the swim and I guess I would have been behind on nutrition and overall energy.  And it got hot - it got to 28 degrees and there was no wind.  In fact it was borderline too hot for the aero helmet and I struggled to keep cool enough. 

I was also chugged down the gels, bananas and electrolyte - I had 10 gels, 4 bananas, 3 bottles of electrolyte and 3 bottles of water. 

The first 90km on the bike was a bit of a grovel but I did improve in the second half and I think I came home strong, managing to maintain a pretty even pace throughout the whole course.  However it was still slower than I would have liked (6:52) - I guess a combination of the heat and additional swim time plus, the course is marginally hillier than Taupo.  The rollers are deceiving and would have slowed me up no doubt.  While Taupo has around 1900m of climbing concentrated at one end of the two lap course, the Cairns course totalled over 2000m of climbing, across a larger number of smaller undulations.

Despite the challenges of the course though, it was absolutely stunning.  The coastal highway up to Port Douglas had been closed down for the event and so we had the road to ourselves, and it was fantastic.  Gorgeous views along the coastline and through the rainforest more than made up for any discomfort being experienced. 

Even so, I was feeling pretty tanked by the time I got to the run and set off with a combo run walk - which lasted about a kilometre!  I kept trying different strategies to get running again (i.e. run to the next aid station; run 2 road cones, walk 1 etc) but my brain wasn't having any of it.  So power walking it was the outcome with some jogging interspersed for the first 10km.  At about that point a bloke who was walking as well teamed up with me and we power walked the next 21km.  He was setting a good pace - I think we managed an 8min km at one point, all the while having a great natter about Ironman.  Thankfully he was happy to talk while I focused on keeping up! 

That got us onto the esplanade where we had 2 1/2 loops to go.  At that point St Pete found us - he had come down to the far end of the Esplanade and proceeded to run ahead and stop in the dark to take photos.  It was hilarious to leave him behind and then suddenly he would pop up out of nowhere to say Hi again.  So much energy - and far more than I had at that time!

About half way through the first loop I was starting to struggle so I told Stephen, my walking companion, to go on.  We were at 14 hours at that point, and had about 10km to go, and he thought he might have a crack at 15 hours while I didn't think I had it in me.  My gut was starting to rebel at the electrolytes I was having at each aid station and for about a kilometre I had to slow my walk right down as I was feeling really close to getting light headed.  It was a real low point and I knew I needed to do something different to get to the finish.  At the next aid station then I changed tactics and went onto coke and lollies and that started to make a difference.

The last 8km loop, then, I was sore but feeling much stronger and overtook 3 blokes on the final 4km back to the finish.  Of course I managed to run the last 500m and had a total blast at the finish chute.  By the time I got to the chute the VIPs were lining the route to provide a cheering guard of honour and it was the most amazing experience to high five all these people cheering me to the finish.

Finish time 16hrs 10min. On the surface you could say it was disappointing, but given the start to the day I am over the moon to have finished.  An ironman finish is a finish, and more than anything, it teaches you something new every time. 

This time around I've learnt:

1. That my swim demons have been kicked into touch.  If you read my blogs from the start of my ironman journey you would have read about my first lake swim with Coach Dave.  In the past two years my swimming confidence has improved out of sight.  Despite the conditions, the threatening nausea, stinging eyes, leaking goggles and the experience of getting nowhere fast on Sunday, there were no panic attacks, no hyperventilating and no meltdown.  I just kept emptying my goggles, re-sighting, putting my head down and swimming until finally I was within touching distance of the exit steps.  A huge milestone.

2. Not to put sunscreen on my face before swimming.  I'm pretty sure this is what is what caused my goggles to leak, as when I tried to push them a bit more firmly on they would slide around rather than the more familiar sucking motion onto my face.  Doh would be an understatement, but an important lesson to be learnt.

3. That there is a lot of walking at the tail end of ironman, and there are an amazing number of great stories to hear if you slow down enough to listen to them.  I spent an unforgettable 21km walking with Stephen and listening to his tales of ironman and sharing in his absolute love of the sport (next year he becomes a "legend" at Port Macquarie and this year he not only did Port Mac but also Melbourne and Cairns, in the space of 12 weeks.  The latter two completed because they were inaugural events).  In my eyes he is already a legend.

4. My mental toughness got me through the tough bits and I was adaptable enough to accept throwing away the race plan and then changing the nutrition strategy when it had clearly stopped working.  In the latter half of the marathon, coke and lollies rule!

Recovery post-ironman has also been noticeably better than my maiden effort in 2011.  I have the usual chafing but, in terms of muscle soreness and tiredness, there has been much less suffering.  I guess that also reflects the improved condition my body is in - bonus!

And in the wise words of Coach Dave: 

The irongirl legend continues!


  1. Irongirl it is a great story. I hope to see you out there one day.

  2. Thanks Tyson - if you're ever in Cairns or Taupo for Ironman then you definitely will!

  3. Irongirl I loved your story. I hope I can join you out there one day.