Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Ironman Western Australia 2015 - A milestone is reached.

"Sorry D - There's no technique happening here."

This was my silent message to coach as I swam, or was that bashed, my way through what was supposed to be an idyllic swim around the historic Busselton Jetty in the 2015 edition of  Ironman Western Australia.  My 10th ironman and you'd think by now I had experienced it all.

As if.

This was our first time to "Busso" and I was excited to be sharing the week with St Pete and the rest of the crew from Team Evolve in Christchurch - Greg, Marie and of course Coach Dave.  We had flown in the weekend before and spent an idyllic 7 days exploring the region and putting the final touches on our prep for the race (a.k.a. drinking lots of coffee, doing the odd swim, bike and run, and generally putting our feet up!).

St Pete had been tracking the weather forecast for race day and it looked a bit wet but it was something I wasn't interested in focusing on. After all, you can't control the uncontrollable and you've just got to deal with the conditions handed to you.  And hey, this is Western Australia in December - practically the middle of summer!  Plus we'd had beautiful weather all week - what could go wrong?

Our race director, however, wasn't so blasé. 

At the welcome dinner we had an update from him and it's never good when they start talking about contingency plans for the swim!  30-40kmph SW winds were forecast (plus rain) and so we were shown the alternative swim course should it be too rough to let us go around the jetty.  This course would be a triangle to the north of the jetty, using the structure to shelter us.  And if it was too bad to swim then they would cancel the swim leg and we'd be doing a bike/run only.  The only thing to do then was trust in the swim course director - they would make the call at sunrise and place the buoys accordingly.

Race morning: 3.00am alarm and I lie awake listening to the downpour outside.  Drat, we're in for a bit of a wet day by the sounds of things...

Undeterred though, we all head down and it's heartening to have the rain stopped by the time we get into transition to do final checks on our bikes.  At sunrise the buoys go out on the course and it doesn't look too bad out there.  The original course around the jetty is set up and by 5.30am we are wetsuited up, saying our final goodbyes to supporters and heading down to the water.  

The swim course at Busso has to be the easiest to navigate on the ironman circuit.  The jetty itself is 1.8km long (its claim to fame is as the longest wooden piled jetty in the Southern Hemisphere) and so you literally swim around it, keeping it on your left all the way.  With a slight right hand bend in it as well, all we had to do was stand on the beach and line up the far end of the jetty, swim towards it and then go around the two turn buoys, each located about 50m out from the end of it, 200m apart.

The start gun went off and we had the usual mass start chaos while we all found our space and settled into actual swimming.  After around 400m I was in a happy spot - I had found some feet to follow and had stopped needing to elbow and generally push people off me.  Despite the recent rain and generally grey day the water was still crystal clear and would be all the way round and so it was cool to look at the ocean floor below and spot the fish life, including a stingray as we swam.

As we headed out it started getting noticeably rougher, but nothing too concerning.  The swell was coming from the south (left hand side) and I had to start changing my breathing to one side. Surprisingly, though, if I breathed away from the swell I was invariably getting a mouthful of water and so I actually ended up breathing towards the swell. (I think what was happening is that I was able to better time my breaths for the top of a wave by turning towards it, whereas when I turned away I invariably ended up not timing it so well, because I couldn't see the wave coming, and so would end up getting a mouthful of water).

We made good progress to the end of the jetty - despite the waves it was easy sighting and once we got to the end we finally saw the first purple turn buoy.  At that point everyone converged again and I lost the feet I was following, however that would be the least of my worries.

As I turned around the buoy and started heading towards the second turn buoy it was like I had suddenly turned into a raging storm.  The wind was coming straight at us, the waves were coming straight at us and sea spray was being blown off the tops of the waves.  It would have been an impressive sight if I didn't have to swim through it!  

Undeterred however, I carried on.  There were swim caps around me and that provided plenty of reassurance that I was doing OK.  At the second turn buoy, and over half way, I took my first glance at my watch - 42 minutes.  Wicked - on track for sub 1:30 and I was more than happy with that.

Except the wind gods had other ideas.

Heading back down the south side of the jetty We got to experience the full effects of the sou'wester coming through and I suddenly realised how much shelter the jetty had been providing us on the other side!  Heading home became a bash fest as I tried to go with the swell and chop as much as possible while maintaining some semblance of forward motion.  All technique went out the window (sorry coach!) and one-sided breathing continued to be the order of the day, except this time I had to switch to the sheltered side to breathe.  There was no way I could get away with trying to breathe towards the wind - it was blowing water straight into my face that side.  Following feet also became a challenge. I'd latch onto a pair and then they'd suddenly disappear as they or I got swept in a different direction by the turbulent waters.  In the end it took 8 minutes longer to do the shorter return leg and I finally got out of the water at 1:32.  Middle of my age group though and, considering the conditions, I was super happy with it.

At the awards dinner the following evening the swim course director would describe the swim leg as the toughest in the 12 years of this race and 47 people would either pull out or not make the intermediate swim cut off (at the end of the jetty).


Out of T1 then and it was time to take on the bike course.  2 laps of flat roads and I had coach's words ringing in my ears.

Be patient.

The winds were still up and so I knew we would be in for challenging conditions - and I wasn't disappointed.  What I hadn't counted on, though, was how tired my shoulders would be from the swim.  They had taken a hammering and they had no problems telling me so as soon as I started settling into aero.  The first 10km out of town, though, was a good time to let things settle down, stay patient, and get some calories in.  We had a tailwind going out and so I made the most of it and posted a good split without going too mad.

The design of the course is such that there are a stack of out and back sections and all pretty much in line with the day's winds.  So I had the reassurance of knowing that if things were going hard one way I'd be able to recover a bit as soon as we started going the other way.  Being a flat course also had its benefits (and downsides).  No hills to contend with (yippee), but no respite from being down in aero either.  That was OK though - I had trained for it and was surprised at the number of people I would see up on the bars, obviously needing to give their backs a bit of a break.

I finished the first half of the bike in 3 hours 6 minutes.  A pretty good time for the conditions and it would normally set me up nicely for a strong finish.  In the end I lost an additional 9 minutes on the second lap, and rolled into T2 with a bike split of 6:21.  I had stayed strong and steady and so wasn't unhappy with where things were at that point, but glad to have just the run left to do and 8 hours 5 minutes elapsed so far in what had been tough conditions.

As I walked out of T2 to start the run I saw St Pete and gave him a quick hug and high five as I went past, relaying my relief at getting through so far.  

Little did we know but that broad smile of mine was about to disappear down a big black hole for the next six and a half hours.

The run leg is a 4 lap out and back course along the Busselton waterfront.  Flat terrain and plenty of opportunities for crowd support all along the way.  My plan was to take it steady, start out easy and settle into a good rhythm that I could maintain to the end.  Ideally I would only be walking through the aid stations and running the rest of the distance.

At just over 8 hours I knew my "A" goal of a sub-13 hour finish was going to be touch and go.  My best IM marathons had been 5:19-5:31 but they were on undulating/hilly courses (NZ and Kona).  My fresh marathon PB is 4:28 and so on a good day it was theoretically possible on this flat course.  I was determined not to stress about it though - focus on getting into a steady rhythm and just take it one aid station at a time and see how it plays out.

Unfortunately, though, it wasn't to be and the wheels started falling off pretty dramatically from the start.

I didn't panic initially - I knew that I always took a good 5km to get going properly and so during the first lap I stayed patient and did a bit of walking, a bit of running, took in watermelon and Endura at the aid stations to keep the hydration up, and waited to come right.

And waited.

And waited.

By the time I got onto my second lap I pretty much knew the day was over.  I was walking more than I was running and getting frustrated with my inability to get going.  At the end of the second lap I took a couple of minutes on the sidelines to regroup with St Pete (a first) and then got going again.  During the third lap I could also feel that my stomach was starting to shut down and so tried to be a bit more selective about the nutrition I took on board.  Less of the watermelon, less water, less Endura - the wind was also pretty chilly in places and with me walking more than I was running I didn't want to fall into the trap of over hydration alongside a lower sweat rate.

At the beginning of the 4th and final lap St Pete suggested I try some cola at the next aid station and so I duly took a sip....and instantly regretted it.

A wave of nausea washed over me and next thing I was bent over by the side of the course wanting desperately to throw up, but not able to.  (Another first!)  After a couple of minutes I got going again but it must have been painful for St Pete to watch - I was not in a happy place at all and, for the first time ever, was questioning the continuation of my ironman career. Yep, it was that bad.

Despite my doldrums though, there was never any question of giving up.  I had time and managed to summons the energy to run the last 500m to the finish, crossing the line in 14:34:59.

For this event we had decided to try out a new initiative offered by Ironman, their VIP Finish Line Experience.  For this, Pete got to wait for me behind the finish line and present me with my medal and towel.  Given the day I had just been through I couldn't think of a more welcome sight to have when I crossed that finish line - in fact he was more important to me at that point than the day's women's pro winner, Sarah Piampiano, who was also standing there handing out medals to finishers!

So, Ironman #10 done, and the sea conditions, nausea and run ensured a completely different experience to the previous 9.  Who would have thought that possible???

Do I know what happened out there (apart from having a shocking run)?  No.  But that is one of the joys of the sport - the endless quest to solve the mysteries and never knowing what's going to get thrown at you next.  The next few days will be spent reflecting and analysing parts of the race with Coach Dave and trying to piece together the vital missing element(s).  Whether it was the prep, the saltwater/sea conditions, the nutrition or some other as yet unidentified issue, the analyst in me won't rest until I come up with some  semi-logical explanation.

And then we'll be working at putting that particular issue to rest so that it has less chance of impacting my next race - Ironman New Zealand 2016.  

Yep, I still have a sub-13 hour finish in my sights and the desire to never do another ironman didn't last long!  Plus there's definitely unfinished business with Busso...