Monday, August 15, 2016

Ultraman Australia 2017 - What the .... Have I Done?!

It was an email that St Pete and I had been waiting for, and here it was.  My official invitation to join 49 other like-minded crazy athletes taking on Ultraman Australia in May next year.  I had submitted my application with the same gulp moment that accompanied my first ironman entry 6 years ago, but this morning's confirmation brought nothing but excitement.  

Excitement at the opportunity to test myself.

Excitement at the opportunity to achieve what most people can't even comprehend.

Excitement at the opportunity to show that with a bit of passion, dedication and a lot of hard work it is possible to achieve the extraordinary.

Excitement at the opportunity to inspire others the way others have inspired me.

For the uninitiated, Ultraman is a 3 day stage race, kind of a double ironman over three days.  Day 1 is a 10km swim then a 140km bike, Day 2 a 280km bike and then Day 3 a double marathon.  Yep, 84km.  Each day has a 12 hour time limit (6hrs for each leg on Day 1) and, unlike ironman, in Ultraman the support crew play a critical role in the success of the athlete.  The crew accompany the athlete all through the bike and run, feeding them, fixing any problems on the bike and pacing them on the run. They pass on messages of support, speak for the athlete, make decisions and, most importantly, don't get upset when the athlete gets grumpy.  Because the athlete will get grumpy!  

The first Ultraman Triathlon was held in Hawaii in 1983, with the goal of staging an event which focused on the guiding principles of Hawaiian culture: “aloha” (love), “ohana” (family), and “kokua” (help).  And it is these principles that also make the event unique with support crews helping each other out and being there for all the athletes, not just their own.

It's an event I've been fascinated with since its introduction to Australia in 2015. I had heard of the Hawaii edition only vaguely and of course it seemed completely out of reach, but I sat up and took notice when a Kiwi friend Debi and her partner John took it on in 2015. 2015 also marked the year pro triathlete Kate Bevilaqua won outright the Canadian version of the event.  That's right - the outright winner!  Girls can do anything :). And then this year another friend Mel successfully completed it, her second Ultraman after doing Canada a couple of years ago.

So I suddenly had all of these "normal" people around me that were taking it on and it wasn't long before I was starting to weigh up the possibilities.  I can do a 10km swim in less than 6 hours - I did the 100 x 100s last year.  The bike wouldn't be a problem and the run?  Well, there's got to be part of it that scares you!  But when my head started telling me that each day would be shorter than my typical ironman day I knew I was in trouble.  I couldn't go past that "perfect" logic and so St Pete soon had Irongirl talking about her next big goal.

So the planning began and until now it's been all about the coach.  And this is where my new coach comes in. Despite the logic that's reassured me I'm not completely crazy applying in the first place I know this event is going to be a big ask.  As far as extending myself it's another ironman-like leap into the unknown and I came to the conclusion early on that I needed to have a coach that knows the event inside out - who I can trust completely to know that I'm on the right track during the low point(s) of my training.  And with Craig Percival of No Limits Endurance I've got that - his record of Ultraman finishers is about as good as it comes and he's a two time Ultraman finisher himself.  As he said - he knows how it feels 70km into the run.

So there we have it - my next big adventure.  Noosa, 13-15 May 2017.  This is going to be one hell of a journey!

But first, an Ironman to tick off with the bionic knee.  Next up remains Ironman Western Australia in December.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Breaking Up is Hard to Do - A Tribute to Coach

Ironman New Zealand 2011
Since my accident in January I've had a lot of down time in recovery and recuperation and a lot of time to think.

Some would say too much time!

What it's done though is allow me to think about my goals, hopes and aspirations for the future.  10 ironmans down - rudely interrupted while preparing for number 11 - is no mean feat.  But is that all I'm destined for?  Is iron distance racing going to be my sole focus for the next 20 years?

Hell no.

My current goal of 10 Ironman New Zealand finishes (legend status) remains but there are a whole world of challenges out there that excite (and scare) me in the same way my first ironman did.  And with St Pete's support I'm setting my sights on one for 2017.  What is it?  Well that's for another blog post.

This blog entry is all about paying tribute to Coach Dave Dwan and his Team Evolve. And I'm doing that because my new challenge on the horizon meant that I recently made the logical but very difficult decision to break up with Dave as my coach.  The logical side I'll also cover at another time.  Today, though it's all about expressing my thanks and appreciation for Dave and the guidance and support he's provided over the six years we have been working together. The part that made this decision so very difficult.

Ironman World Champs, Kona, 2014
We first met in March 2010.  I was enthusiastic about this desire to give ironman a go but with no idea how to go about it or even if I had the ability to do it.  The idea excited and terrified me in equal measure but Dave took me under his wing and guided me through that first ironman so successfully that I became hooked on the sport and the lifestyle.

Over the next five years St Pete and I built a strong partnership with D and through that I successfully completed another 9 ironman races, including the experience of a lifetime, the world champs in Kona.  A 100% success rate at ironman events is one of my proudest achievements and D had a big hand in that - making sure my body was handling the training load and my head was handling race day highs and lows.

As a coach I couldn't have asked for more - the unwavering support when I had doubts, the willingness to talk and get to the bottom of my biggest fears, Dave didn't just email through a program. He was a sounding board, mentor, cheerleader and friend - qualities that go way past the technical expertise required for the job.

Ironman Western Australia - Busselton, 2015
And finally, his most important contribution - and which ironically has led to my decision to move away for this next project - was to give me the confidence to aim higher and to challenge myself with something bigger.  Without the experience of the last 6 years I would never have considered myself even slightly capable of taking on what I soon hope to.

And for that I'll always appreciate and value the role Dave has played. His baby athlete has grown up, found her wings and is now ready to soar from the nest.

Will I be back?  I don't know. But I do know to never say never, and whatever happens, in Dave's own wise words, life unfolds as it should.

This isn't an end but it is a new beginning.  Thanks D for the part you've played in my journey so far - you've been the best coach an irongirl could have and I wouldn't have changed a thing.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Ironman New Zealand 2016 - Sh*t Happens

First of all, a disclaimer.  If you've found this post as the result of a Google or other internet search, in a quest for a race report on Ironman New Zealand, you've come to the wrong place.  But don't worry, your search has not been a complete waste.  If you're not fussy about years, I can give you plenty of reports on this wonderful event in a special part of the world.  If that's what you want, try my race reports from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 or 2015.

This post, although titled Ironman New Zealand 2016, is more about the lemons life sometimes throws you and a reminder that, above all else, what happens to you is not important.  What's important is how you react to it and being thankful for the silver linings.

Because there are always silver linings.

2016 was to have been my 6th time at Ironman New Zealand, starting the homeward journey to legend status at this event (10 IMNZ finishes required), and 11th ironman overall.  However on 31 January 2016 life decided to throw me a curveball and so, as the race unfolds tomorrow in beautiful Taupo, I will be at home in Sydney, streaming it live and cheering on all my friends, while nursing a busted up leg.

Yep, shit happens.

The story starts 5 weeks ago.  I was into my final big block of training and 5km into a 120km TT ride when fate intervened.  It was early morning and, with the sun in his eyes, a driver made a split second error of judgement and failed to give way to me, making a right hand turn across the road into a driveway.  I was in aero, doing about 28kmph, watching him approach from the other direction.   As I rode I kept watching, looking for indications that he had seen me as he slowed down and pulled into the right hand turn lane.  I was in a bike lane, he was turning into a driveway and simply needed to stop for 5 seconds while I passed.  However, just as I was virtually parallel to him, he accelerated to complete the turn, by which time I had nowhere to go and no time to stop.  The front of the vehicle hit me side on, Black Beauty sliding under the vehicle as he screeched to a stop.  Thankfully I somehow unclipped from the bike and went over the bonnet, landing on the road a couple of metres away.

The pain in both my knees hit me instantly and I was stopped dead on the ground, breathing hard through the intense pain and wishing like hell the adrenaline would kick in quicker.  Almost immediately there were people around me, stopping to help, including Alice, who would stay by my side, directing the others to find blankets for me, keeping me still, talking to me and not letting me close my eyes.  As I was perched on the ground I could see Black Beauty on her side, under the wheels of the SUV, and I was immediately thankful for the first silver lining of the day.

Much as I loved her, I was so glad it was Black Beauty under there rather than me.

A quick phone call to Pete was in order, giving him the news that no triathlete's or cyclist's partner wants to hear, that I had been hit by a car.  As I lay on the ground, looking at Black Beauty still under the car, I promised my saint that I was "OK", (well, OK enough to speak rationally to him and convince him that he didn't need to try and get out to the accident scene - made more difficult given I had taken the car), and this brought about the second and third silver linings of the day.

Yes, my face was fine (not smashed up) and not much in the way of gravel rash, including none on the hands for this non-glove wearer when TT riding. My knees definitely took the fall on this one!

The phone, that had been in the FuelCell on the bike, came through completely unscathed.  Big ups to its LifeProof case!

It was established early on that I had a significant laceration to my left knee but everyone was also concerned about any spinal injuries or concussion. And so when the ambulance arrived it was all about pain relief (which also helped the shaking I was doing now that the shock had set in) and putting me into a neck brace and onto a spinal board for the trip to hospital.
Drugs had kicked in - getting bored with the phone!

Once in hospital I had a full assessment - x-rays to check for broken bones and spinal damage and neurological tests to check for concussion.  By this stage Alice had gone and found the car and brought it and the wrecked bike to the hospital, and found Pete, who had also made his way to the hospital.  She had gone above and beyond that day and I will always be grateful to her and the others who stopped to help a fellow cyclist by the side of the road.

Alice is racing Ironman New Zealand tomorrow - her first ironman and hopefully the first of many!

After all the tests came back it looked like the main concern was the laceration to the knee.  So the ED Registrar stitched me up and sent me home with scripts for painkillers and instructions to see my GP on Tuesday for a follow up and to check they hadn't missed anything....hmmm...if only they knew what they missed!  But no matter, more silver linings were all we could think of at the time.

No broken bones, no concussion.
Before ...
...and after. The Registrar's handy work.

At that point and for the next 24 hours my spirits were pretty high.  Yes, the next morning I literally knew what it felt like "to be hit by a bus", as the bruising started making itself felt - everywhere.  But there was still 5 weeks to IMNZ and if the stitched knee was the only thing I needed to worry about then there was every chance I could still make the start line - even if it was minus the final solid set of training.  And even though it was unlikely Black Beauty would be travelling anywhere soon, I already had the alternative worked out.  My trusty Avanti, who had seen me through my first couple of years of ironman, could easily be set up again to make the trip.

IM #11 was not yet derailed.

By the time I went to my GP on Tuesday, though, a small red flag was waving.  My right knee, which had been virtually ignored by the hospital, was giving me grief big time.  While I could walk on it, any twisting caused intense pain and a feeling that it would give way.  Something wasn't right and my GP immediately sent me off for an MRI.  She knew what I was up against - she had already felt it necessary to tell me to stay out of the pool until the stitches were out!  And while I waited until the end of the week for the results to come through I was crossing my fingers that the results would simply show a bad wrenching of the knee that we could intensively rehab over the coming weeks.  That optimism was buoyed by the fact that walking did seem to improve slightly over the next few days - surely that meant it was getting better?

My world came crashing down, though, that next visit when my GP's first words were "it's not good unfortunately".  While I hadn't broken any bones I had instead managed to tear or partially tear three of the four ligaments in my knee.  The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) was gone, the PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) was partially torn and the MCL (medial collateral ligament, the ligament that runs down the inside of the knee) was torn.

There was no way around it - Ironman New Zealand was out.

An immediate referral to a surgeon was the next step and while the tissue box took a hammering the next couple of days I immediately looked to take something positive out of the situation.  I didn't know much about ligament injuries but knew that ACL tears tend to require surgery and a pretty significant rehab time.  The ligament can't just be sutured together, rather it needs to be reconstructed, commonly via a transplant from the hamstring.  However more than just the ACL was involved here and I really didn't know what to think, but needed to take some positive action in the meantime. And that first focus was sorting out my ironman entry.

Thanks to a new initiative being piloted by Ironman Asia Pacific, I was able to transfer my New Zealand entry fee to Ironman Western Australia  in December and so this became my new focus.  My surgeon didn't yet know it but he would have a deadline and I would do everything I could to be able to get to the start line.

15 days after the accident I was sitting in Dr Robert Molnar's rooms while he and his intern pored over the MRI scans and examined the state of both my knees.  The verdict was a bitter pill to swallow.  I had definitely made a mess of my right knee and he was able to confirm the original report of full tears to the ACL and MCL and a partial tear to the PCL.  In fact he wasn't sure how I was managing to walk on the leg at all.  I guess my fitness and strength were carrying me through.  Even worse, was his caution about Ironman Western Australia.

"I don't know if 10 months is going to be long enough to get you ready to run the marathon" is not something this irongirl was interested in hearing.  "What if I walk it?" was my response.  "I don't care if I get to the start of the marathon and have to walk most of it - I just need this goal to be able to focus on."  Hmm, determined, much?!

Not only this, though, there was his view about the MCL repair.  Apparently there is a window of about 2 weeks in order to successfully repair it.  And here we were, 2 weeks and 1 day post-accident.  With no time on our side, he disappeared out the room to see what could be done.  5 minutes (and a couple of tissues) later his nurse comes in, exclaiming that "this must be important, he normally wouldn't do this".  Schedules had been pushed aside and I was booked into surgery 48 hours later for a multi-ligament knee reconstruction.

Whoa - wasn't expecting that.

The next couple of days were chaotic.  It would be fair to say that no one was accustomed to planning for surgery this quickly outside an emergency department, including the driver's insurance company who were supposedly paying for this.  While they complained about not having enough time to approve the claim, and refused to do so in time, we resigned ourselves to having the surgery delayed a week. However Dr Molnar wasn't keen on delaying and after much mucking around I was finally wheeled into surgery, as planned, on Wednesday evening, 17 February - 17 days post-accident.
Day 1 post-surgery - the only way now is up.

So here I now am, just over 2 weeks after surgery - an operation that required 3 hours under the knife to fix what was apparently quite a mess in there.  I have a leg brace I call Boris that is my constant companion until the end of this month and several months of rehab in front of me in order to regain mobility and strength in my right leg and then the fitness and endurance that I am currently losing slowly but surely.

I haven't been able to take part in Ironman New Zealand this year and that was the most upsetting news to deal with (even more than the accident itself).  But once I came through the surgery all of that disappointment left me and my mindset switched.  My whole focus is, and can only be, on recovery and rehabilitation and successfully getting myself back to the ironman start line, whether it be Western Australia in December or New Zealand next March (Dr Molnar's preference for me).

And while there are plenty of lemons in this story and plenty of reasons for tears, the silver linings far outweigh them all.  Besides those I've already listed above:
  • It didn't happen just before Kona.  My once in a lifetime Kona dream didn't get derailed and so even if the worst case scenario happens, and I end up not completing another ironman, my Kona finish will always be with me, as will all 10 ironman finishes.  That is far from being a likely scenario at the moment though.
  • The driver admitted liability straight away.  Yes he made a mistake, but he stayed around after the accident and admitted liability to the cops at the outset.  We've been in touch since and he's apologised profusely, which is never easy to do, and so I feel no bitterness towards him.
  • The driver was fully insured.  His motor vehicle insurance should replace the bike and his compulsory third party insurance is covering my medical costs.  Imagine if he had been driving an unregistered, uninsured car.
  • I'm still here to tell the story.   It could have been much, much worse and this, by far, is the most important silver lining.
Ultimately this should simply be a small hiccup along my ironman journey.  A journey that is far from dull and never predictable.  And for that I am truly grateful.

Yes, shit happens to all of us.  But part of the trick to getting through this life happy is rolling with the punches and getting back up again.  Whether it's looking for the positives, or learning from the experience, it's all about how you choose to react to the shit that gets thrown at you.

And whether it be in December this year or March next year, I plan to deal with this shit by doing everything I can to race again.