Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ironman Cairns 2014 - Since when was the tropical north supposed to be so cold?

You'd think that with seven ironman finishes under my belt, at only two different locations, that I'd have all the bases covered.  No surprises left, it should be nice and predictable by now and, dare I say it - boring?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Cairns, that tropical paradise in Far North Queensland in Australia, decided to throw us a curveball on Sunday, in the form of rain.

17 hours of it in fact.

We started in the rain.  We finished in the rain.  In between there was rain, mud, puddles.  Oh, and some more rain just for good measure.

Did I mention it rained?

OK, enough of the rain - onto the day!

I had had a pretty low key build up and, as mentioned in a previous post, this race was all about practising strategies for Kona.  The Cairns climate has been likened to Kona conditions and so keeping it in the schedule meant I could try out Coach Dave's plan to ensure I survive the lava fields in good enough shape to soak up the experience.

That message obviously didn't get through to Mother Nature.

The day before, Lisa, Mel and I rode the bikes out to Palm Cove where the swim start and T1 would be located for the first time.  (Tip for anyone reading this and thinking about doing IM or IM70.3 Cairns - don't worry about the stress of having your bike transported out to T1 at Palm Cove. It's an easy 60 minute ride on bike lanes following the main road north out of Cairns.). It was here we got our first look at the new swim course.

Of course all the marketing shots show a gorgeous palm fringed beach with crystal blue, calm water. What we actually got was murky brown surf crashing onto shore with the palm trees blowing in the wind…  Surf session anyone?
Surveying the surf … not quite like the brochures...

It didn't make for confidence, especially when even now the swim remains my biggest psychological challenge with these events.  As a result our quiet, relaxed night-before-race-day became a wonderful breeding ground for doubts and nerves to show their ugly faces and it took all my secret boxes of tricks to deal with them.  Bad thoughts!

If only I could get excited about the swim like I do the bike...

Thanks Specialized!
Anyway, race morning arrived and I had slept really well and was in a good head space to go and have a great day. Raincoats on, we walked down to the buses that would take us out to Palm Cove.  Once there I went into T1 to do the usual pre-check on Black Beauty. Garmin Edge 810 set, electrolyte drink in bottle between the aero bars, water in the bladder and fuel cell loaded with food.  And a nice surprise waiting at some of our bikes - seat covers on the Specialized bikes, from Specialized, wishing us luck.  A nice touch which brought a smile to the face.  Tyres pumped up I made my way out tof the soggy transition area to find Pete. 

While I had been mucking around in T1 he had found a dry spot for us - the Pullman Hotel was just down the road and had opened its foyer to us, and so this is where around 100 athletes gathered to stay dry and as warm as possible.

Eventually it was time to go down to the start and I was hoping like anything that the sea would have calmed down since the previous afternoon.  Thankfully it had and, while it was still pretty lumpy, it was nowhere as bad as I feared it would be.  

The pros went off and finally it was our turn - the music was pumping and I got into my happy place - dancing on the beach! Let's do this!

The gun goes off and 1600 athletes make their way into the water and out through the break.  It felt like a couple of minutes before I could start swimming properly amongst the crowds but eventually we got going.  The new course is a big rectangle and we would swim two laps, exiting at the opposite end of the rectangle to the starting point.  As with Taupo this year, I seemed to be on the receiving end of a lot of contact, although I didn't seem to get as short of breath at the beginning as I usually do.

A really interesting aspect to this swim was that I had no time on me.  Because of the different race plan, I was going to use the Garmin Edge 810 on the bike so I could watch my heart rate and cadence and then put the Garmin 910xt on for the run.  That meant I had nothing for the swim and so my usual halfway time check didn't happen.  That meant I was able to just settle in and swim, find feet and think happy thoughts.

And that I did.  There was a bit of chop out there - enough to prevent getting into a proper rhythm and enough to get tossed against other swimmers (and vice versa) but not enough to really restrict progress. Even so I was a happy camper to land on the beach (or actually "get dumped on the beach"!) and make my way up through the showers and through into transition.  There was no clock on the beach and so I didn't have a clue how long I'd been in the water however there were a good number of women in transition with me so I took that as a good sign!

I took a bit of time in transition to make sure as much sand as possible was off my feet and made my way out to Black Beauty.  So much for thinking my feet were clean though - as we walked/ran out of the tent we walked/ran straight into a muddy quagmire.  I grabbed Black Beauty and tried rolling her to the exit but the mud was so deep I ended up picking her up and carrying her the 100m to the other end of transition.


On the bike finally, I saw St Pete as I got going and gave him a wave.  As I rolled by he called out that I had done a 1:28 swim.  Was that good, I asked myself?  I had been so disinterested in time splits this time round that I had done none of my usual reviews of past results and so spent a couple of minutes trying to figure out if it was an OK time.  I eventually gave up on that idea and decided that anything under 90 minutes was AWESOME (haha) and left it behind with the mud in transition.

Afterall I had 6 hours on the bike to deal with…

(My official swim time was 1:28:47, almost 5 minutes faster than IM Cairns the previous year.)

I've raved about this before in previous IM Cairns race reports so I won't go on much here, other to say that normally the bike course is one of the most gorgeous and scenic in the world.  Unfortunately we missed the best of it with the rain but the bonus of the day was that the wind we have had in the previous two years managed to stay away for the bulk of the leg.

It still meant for a cold, wet ride, however, and I suffered big time.

While I passed a lot of people (non-aggressively, this was just a training ride!) in the first half of the ride, I never managed to get the legs warmed up properly and so maintaining Coach Dave's desired 95+ cadence just wasn't on the cards.  I focused instead on getting my heart rate down after the swim and then riding conservatively enough to keep it as close as possible to 135 bpm (the second part of the race plan).  I did find myself thinking though that if I let my heart rate stay higher then I would also stay a bit warmer.  So I ended up with an average heart rate of 140bpm which, in the conditions, I was pretty happy with afterwards.

The weather also impacted on my nutrition and that would come back to bite me later on in the evening.  Because I was taking in rain water, and was cold, I didn't get the thirst that I normally come to expect.  That meant it was extra important to remember to take in fluids and so I focused on drinking my electrolyte drink throughout the ride.  Even so, over the 180km I found I had only taken in one bottle of water and one bottle of electrolyte - and while it felt fine at the time, as you'll see at the end I've come to the conclusion that I likely didn't take in quite enough.

Solid food was the other important strategy and for the second time I dispensed completely with gels and had "real" food only in the form of handmade balls and bars of dates, nuts, cacao, coconut and chia seeds.  They sat in my fuel cell on the bike and in my back pockets, individually wrapped in glad wrap.  They were really easy to take out, unwrap and eat and the glad wrap was simple to stuff into the back pocket of my tri suit.  The only slight problem with the nutrition plan was the schedule of taking a banana at each aid station.  For the first three aid stations (60km) it worked a treat.

And then they ran out.

Yep, by the time I got half way through the course there were no bananas available to hand out to us….who mucked up that calculation?!!!!!  Guess what feedback I'll be giving IM when their post-event survey comes out…

And then as if the weather wasn't causing enough challenges I started facing my second major challenge of the day.

My gut.

As I was heading to Port Douglas for the first time I started feeling really gassy, uncomfortable and bloated.  A portaloo stop was needed … and taken.  And straight afterwards I posted my fastest average  split on the bike leg!  Time obviously well spent :)

Posting a fast bike split within the leg wasn't to be sneezed at either.  Again the rain put a dampener on the party with caution having to be taken on the descents and roundabouts.  Where normally I'd put the hammer down on descents and power through roundabouts at 100%, the rain plus my slick racing tyres meant that I was approaching these sections much more cautiously.

But that's OK - I'm supposed to be riding conservatively anyway…

And I did, and all was well until one of the last bridges heading into Cairns.  I was probably only around 5km from the end and powering along the bridge when I come to the other end and realise I'm about to plow into a huge pothole.  It was full of water and so basically invisible until I was on top of it.   I had just enough time to stand on the pedals and start hoping for the best when I crashed through it, came out the other side (still on the bike thankfully - gotta love those old mountainbike skills!) but hearing a big thud down the road behind me.  I looked down and the fuel cell had jumped out and was bouncing down the road.  A couple of micro seconds were spent deciding whether to go back for it - but I decided it was actually worth stopping for and so hauled on the brakes and ran the bike back 50m to where it and half its contents were strewn across the bike lane.  The fuel cell was in two pieces, but thankfully they were the two pieces it was manufactured as, so I was able to put them back together, slot it back onto the frame and get back on the road without too much delay.

Reading all this you're probably thinking I had a miserable ride.  Well, no, actually it was awesome!  And maybe that's what makes us so passionate about this sport.  I spent over 6 hours dealing with all these issues on the bike but rolled into T2 wet, cold, but in one piece and really happy.  Even better I had suffered no punctures and was free of any aches and pains and ready for a bit of a run.  It had been planned as a conservative ride and I felt as though it had been a good conservative effort.  Awesome!

(A 6hr 18min split for the bike was 21 minutes slower than last year but still 34 minutes faster than the year before and so, for a training day, I was more than happy with that effort.)

I gratefully handed Black Beauty over to a volunteer in T2, grabbed my run bag and headed into the change tent.  Again, spent a few extra seconds making sure my feet were dry before putting my socks and running shoes on and, again, wondered why I bothered.

As I ran out of the tent I ran straight into yet another muddy quagmire and literally had to tiptoe my way onto the run course.  Not the way I had planned to start!

The plan for the run was to again take it conservatively.  Aim to walk each aid station and run the rest.  Ultimately, though, I didn't want to hammer the legs as we need to get them recovered as soon as possible so we can start the Kona buildup.

The run course at Cairns is now a 3 lap course entirely around the Esplanade.  The first 14km (first lap) went pretty much to plan with me ticking off the kilometres and taking in electrolyte at each aid station.

All was good with the world until I started getting the same gut problems as I had on the bike.  What's going on there?!  The second lap, then (after a toilet stop) became a low point and at one pass I remember telling St Pete to settle in for a long evening.  At several points I was debating with myself whether it would be better just to walk the remaining distance.  The pros for that being it wouldn't upset my gut any further and wouldn't stress the legs so much, after all this was just a training day.  On the downside, the more I walked the colder I was getting.

And that wasn't a good thing.

At a couple of aid stations, while I was pausing to pick up lollies, people would be stopping and asking for emergency blankets.  Silver-wrapped bodies became more prevalent as the night wore on and I
really didn't want to be one of them.

I persevered through the second lap and gratefully accepted my third wristband which signified that I was on that glorious last lap.  Not too much further along I caught up to another girl in my age group and we started walking/running together.  Sandi was also a bit of an ironman veteran like me and we found ourselves chatting away as we encouraged each other through the final lap.  She was struggling with toenails and I was struggling with the cold and gut issues, but we had enough conversation in us to take our minds off things for most of that lap.

Finally we were at the final turnaround and there was just a 4km stretch left back to the finish.  How good did that feel, except 3km out and my gut decides it needs another toilet stop.  Now!  I therefore tell Sandi to carry on and that I'll try and catch her or see her at the end.

I get running again and start picking off people looking to see if I can catch Sandi.  I can sense the finish line and am feeling strong and catch her with about a kilometre to go.  For about 100m I run with her and then I feel her dropping back and before I know it she's urging me to carry on.  By this stage I'm really starting to feel the cold quite badly and so we agree to find each other at the food tent and with that I put in a bit of a burst and have a strong and happy finish across the line in 13:56:04.

(For a conservative training day, this finish time was only 2min 30sec slower than Cairns last year. My run split ended up being 5:55:23, almost 15 minutes faster than last year.  Super stoked with that!)

After I crossed the finish line things felt great and the volunteer who walked me around to the recovery area deemed me OK to carry on and left me to have my finish photo taken and then find some food.  I walked through, got my T-Shirt and then started feeling not too flash.

This was a new experience.

I went and sat down for a few minutes and thought I'd try and walk over and collect my T1 bag.  Walked over there and had to sit down again.  I was suddenly feeling nauseous and faint, so took myself back to medical and they sat me down with an emergency blanket and some bottled water to sip on for 10 minutes.  Wow, those blankets really do keep the cold out!

After about 10 minutes I felt good enough to leave under my own steam and headed out to find a very happy St Pete and we slowly made our way back to the apartment and a very welcome hot bath!

All in all, then, a great day out, and the following pointers for next time:

  • As a training day it went perfectly.  I raced conservatively and didn't feel too smashed the next day.  
  • As a training day for Kona it wasn't that good - but you can't do much about the weather!
  • Pack a polypro top for the run bag, even for tropical Cairns!  While the conditions were identical to my first ironman in Taupo, in 2011, there was a big difference in that this time I didn't have an additional 17kg of "insulation" to keep me warm.  Made a big difference...
  • The visit to medical we've put down to my nutrition getting behind on the bike.  I possibly fell behind on the electrolytes and bananas and then didn't manage to recoup it on the run, resulting in being just a bit out of balance by the time I finished.
  • The gut issues?  I've concluded that this was caused by the pasta we had at the welcome dinner.  I no longer have pasta as part of my normal diet and seem to react to it the few times I have had it over the last year or so.  Given this was the only thing I ate that was out of the ordinary, I therefore think it was just too much of a carb load for my gut to handle.  As a result I have added a very important reminder to the welcome party entry on the Kona itinerary: